Headed back to NCAA Tournament, TCU basketball has coveted chance to make its mark

FORT WORTH, Texas — A 20-year wait will come to an end for TCU men’s basketball in Detroit on Friday when the Horned Frogs take the court for the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

TCU has not been a part of March Madness since 1998, when many players on the team were less than 2 years old. The Horned Frogs haven’t won a game in the Big Dance since Coach Jamie Dixon was the starting point guard for  the Horned Frogs in 1987.

Now, in his second season as TCU’s coach, Dixon has the team dancing again after going 0-18 in Big 12 play in 2014. It’s nothing short of a remarkable turnaround that has turned heads in Fort Worth and beyond — even for TCU’s most ardent supporters.

“You can talk about what you’re going to do and we’ve done it ahead of whatever schedule,” Dixon said. “Even the most positive people are probably looking at this as an unbelievably quick schedule. We didn’t set a date, a timeline, but we’ve captured the excitement of kids in Texas and internationally.”

The Horned Frogs’ 9-9 record in Big 12 play this season was more combined wins than TCU combined for in its first four seasons in the conference.

And after winning the NIT  last season, the Horned  Frogs come into their tournament brimming with confidence.

“We’ve played a long season and we were part of a long season last year,” Dixon said. “I don’t feel fatigued.”

The small Big 12 school that could

NCAA Tournament bids are commonplace for most  Big 12 schools. At schools like Kansas and West Virginia, making the field of 68 teams is nothing short of the bare minimum expectation.

But getting to the Big Dance has an entirely different meaning for TCU, the smallest Big 12 school with an enrollment of about 10,000. Factor in the two-decade NCAA Tournament drought — the second longest among Power 5 schools behind only Rutgers — and the Horned Frogs have the chance to take their program to new heights if they can make a run this March.

For Dixon, it’s the next step in a building process that began the day he arrived back at his alma mater.

“I think the school is resonating nationally with students throughout the country — there’s no question about it,” Dixon said. “And the NCAA Tournament — when you see your name in, it’s five or six days — people are following.”

TCU’s style of play the past two seasons under Dixon has already sent the school on the right trajectory when it comes to capturing the attention of casual basketball fans. The Horned Frogs have averaged 83 points per game this season — tied for the 19th highest average nationally and trailing only Oklahoma (85.2) in the Big 12.

Dixon compared his team’s look on offense to that of a professional franchise.

“We look like we have fun, Dixon said. “We share the ball and pass it well. Score high numbers … we play similar to the NBA offensively, so it’s attractive for a lot of reasons.”

And TCU might need to play just like an NBA team if they intend to go deep in its region.

Undetermined opponents and one brutal bracket

While every other Big 12 team in the NCAA Tournament field knows who it will be facing in the round of 64, the Horned Frogs will have to wait a little bit longer.

TCU is one four teams in the field that will face the winner of a play-in game. The sixth-seed  Horned Frogs will meet the winner of Syracuse and Arizona State, who play on Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio.

Dixon said it’s the first time that he has faced this situation in his coaching career — making for an interesting challenge in preparations for the tournament.

“It’s a lot of practice, especially when you don’t know who you’re playing against — a little unique,” Dixon said. “I haven’t been in the play-in game or been playing the [winner of] the play-in game before, so it’s a little different for me.”

Syracuse would provide a familiar foe for Dixon

Dixon’s experience in the Big East and ACC with Pittsburgh, however, could play to the Horned Frogs’ advantage should Syracuse meet TCU at Little Caesars Arena. Dixon went 15-6 against the Orange in his 13 years with the Panthers and is well accustomed to the array of zone defenses of Hall of Famer Jim Boeheim.

“Obviously [I’m] familiar with Syracuse over the years. I don’t know how many games I played against them over the years and [I] know what we’re going to get there,” Dixon said. I’ve seen them play some this year too because of my relationship with Coach Boeheim and just checking up on him.

Whether it will be Syracuse of Arizona State that TCU meets in its  first game, the path won’t get any easier afterwards. The Horned Frogs could potentially face  No. 3 seed Michigan State just 89 miles away from its  East Lansing campus if both win their opening games. After that, TCU could encounter Duke (2) in the the next  potential  game. And Big 12 foes Oklahoma (No. 10 seed) and top-seeded  Kansas are also in the Midwest region.

While preparing for his unknown team for Friday’s game, Dixon echoes the mantra often used by his football counterpart Gary Patterson: One game at a time.

“I don’t look at that too far ahead. I just (consider) the first- and second-round games just because you only have so time and film you can watch to prepare,” Dixon said. “It’s like (conference  games). We’re not looking at four or five games ahead. I don’t even really know who’s on the other side (of the Midwest bracket) to be honest with you.”

TCU and its to-be-determined opponent are set for tip-off at 8:40 p.m. CT on March 16. If they win, their next game would be on Sunday.

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