In terms of a fairytale finish to a turnaround men’s basketball season, TCU received the right seed to the wrong tournament on Selection Sunday.
While most of the college basketball universe will be focused on March Madness, the Horned Frogs (19-15) will be a No. 4 seed in the NIT, complete with a Wednesday game against Fresno State (20-12) in Schollmaier Arena (7 p.m., ESPN3).
The placement is what this team has earned when breakthrough victories over top-ranked Kansas (Thursday) and No. 23 Iowa State (Jan. 14) are balanced against a seven-game losing streak to end the regular season and a non-descript nonconference schedule. For basketball purists eager to see the Frogs return to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for the first time since 1998, Sunday’s news may be embraced with lukewarm sentiments.
But realize this: The NIT is a perfect place for this team, which has zero players on the roster with postseason tournament experience, to prosper in a win-or-go-home setting that should maximize the Frogs’ opportunity to make a significant NCAA Tournament run next year.
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That’s true even if it hurts fans to watch TCU omitted from the chance to play for this year’s national title while fellow Texas-based teams from Baylor (No. 3 seed, East Region), SMU (No. 6 seed, East Region) and Texas Southern (No. 16 seed, South Region) seek NCAA glory.
TCU will return all five of its starters next season, likely the only Big 12 team that will be in that position. Having those players return after making a deep, successful run in the NIT (five games are possible, all of them winnable) probably pays bigger long-term dividends from an experience and confidence standpoint than a one-and-done trip to the NCAA as a No. 11 seed in a play-in game.
It’s simple math: the more times this team plays together and experiences success this season, the better the opportunity to repeat and build on that habit a year from now when the stakes — and the expectations — will be raised for emerging talents and foundation pieces like guards Jaylen Fisher, Alex Robinson and Kenrich Williams.
I think that’s significant. This is something new for all of them. I think it will provide some good lessons for us.
TCU men’s basketball coach Jamie Dixon, on the carryover value of postseason experience for returning players
TCU fans hate being compared to Baylor, but bear with me (pun clearly intended) on this one point. The record shows that, in recent years, Baylor coach Scott Drew’s teams benefitted mightily in a March Madness setting during seasons that followed NIT success.
Baylor finished as the NIT runner-up in 2009, then advanced to the Elite Eight in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. The Bears won the 2013 NIT title before reaching the Sweet 16 in March Madness the next year.
TCU, under first-year coach Jamie Dixon, is capable of following a similar blueprint while building this program into the type of consistent national contender that Dixon envisions. The key, of course, is taking advantage of the opportunity and turning Wednesday’s home game into multiple games, and multiple wins, as an NIT participant on the road to the tournament semifinals in New York.
We’ll soon see how the Frogs fare in maximizing their postseason opportunity/learning experience in their first NIT appearance since 2005. Dixon likes where they’re positioned.
“I know we’re excited. I think we’ve seen this is a wide-open tournament,” Dixon said. “It comes down to how teams respond to playing in this, who’s healthy and who wants to be there. We haven’t been to the NIT in over a decade, so this is a significant accomplishment for these guys. We had a good practice [Sunday] and I know we’re motivated.”
With UT Arlington (25-8) assigned a first-round matchup at Brigham Young (22-11) in a different NIT quadrant, the two Tarrant County schools cannot meet unless both advance to the semifinals in New York. If TCU wins Wednesday, its likely second-round game would be at Iowa (18-14), the No. 1 seed in TCU’s quadrant.
I know we’re excited. I think we’ve seen this is a wide-open tournament.
TCU men’s basketball coach Jamie Dixon
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In terms of NCAA-bound teams from Texas, the most intriguing storyline is the potential for a Southwest Conference reunion in Tulsa, Okla., that would guarantee a team from the Lone Star State a berth in the Sweet 16. Baylor (25-7) and SMU (30-4) are on a collision course for a Sunday meeting if both can advance as favorites in their Friday games.
Baylor is one of six teams from the Big 12 that will be headed to the Big Dance. But only Kansas, the top seed in the Midwest Region, received more respect from the selection committee than the Bears. Other Big 12 participants and their seeds include West Virginia (4), Iowa State (5), Oklahoma State (10) and Kansas State (11).
Baylor meets New Mexico State (28-5), a No. 14 seed, and SMU (29-4) faces the winner of a First Four meeting between a pair of No. 11 seeds: Providence and Southern California. Assuming the Bears and Mustangs take care of business Friday, the winner between the former SWC rivals probably heads to the Sweet 16 as the lone Texas team still standing.
12 Years since TCU’s last appearance in the NIT, during the 2005 season.
It’s hard to see Texas Southern (23-11) — the final Lone Star entry in this year’s Big Dance — prevailing as a No. 16 seed over top-seed North Carolina in the South Region. Bottom line: If a Texas team breaks the state’s 51-year drought since its last NCAA men’s basketball championship (UTEP/Texas Western in 1966), it will be up to Baylor or SMU to make it happen.
If that unsightly drought still exists a year from now (likely), TCU figures to have a chance to do something about it then. But first, the Frogs seek to sharpen their skills for next year’s March Madness opportunity with a deep run in this year’s NIT.
“I think that’s significant,” Dixon said of the carryover value of postseason experience for returning players. “This is something new for all of them. I think it will provide some good lessons for us.”
The No. 1s
Villanova (East): Defending champs (31-3) were swept by Butler in Big East play.
Kansas (Midwest): Big 12 champs (28-4) won nine games by five points or fewer.
North Carolina (South): Tar Heels (27-7) lost last year’s title game on buzzer-beater.
Gonzaga (West): Bulldogs (32-1) are a top seed for the second time (2013) and are making their 19th consecutive NCAA appearance.