Riding high off their season sweep of Texas following a 69-56 over the Longhorns in Austin, TCU likely needs to defeat just Oklahoma State in the opening round of Big 12 Tournament to solidify their spot in the NCAA Tournament.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi currently has TCU as a No. 12 seed while CBS’ Jerry Palm puts them on the No. 10 line. Beating the Cowboys would likely insert the Horned Frogs into March Madness for back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1952-1953.
However, the Cowboys aren’t pushovers. With a neutral-site win over No. 9 LSU and a road win in Waco against Baylor, they’ve proved they can go toe-to-toe with anyone. TCU and OSU split the season series with both teams winning at home.
“They’re dangerous because they shoot the three so well, so when they hit three’s, they can beat anybody,” TCU head coach Jamie Dixon said on Monday’s Big 12 TeleConference. “They hit 11 three’s on us in Stillwater, so we’re well aware of it. They’re playing their best basketball of the year right now.”
Nine of OSU’s 11 three’s in their 68-61 victory on Feb. 18 came from guards Lindy Waters and Thomas Dziagwa, the Big 12’s No. 2 and No. 3 shooters from three in terms of shooting percentage. Dziagwa leads the conference with 3.3 three-pointers made per game, while the Horned Frogs’ Kouat Noi is right behind him at 2.4 made three-pointers per game.
However, TCU has defended the three-point line better than everyone outside of Texas Tech in conference play, limiting Big 12 opponents to 30.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Conversely, Oklahoma State shoots 37.6 percent from three, the best in the Big 12.
This match-up will come down to winning the battle from beyond the arc and on the glass. TCU connected on 11 three’s to OSU’s five in the Horned Frogs’ 70-68 win over the Cowboys on Feb. 6. Noi as well as Desmond Bane will be called upon to provide that spacing for TCU in Kansas City.
Bane knocked down six of his eight shots from deep en route to a career-high 34 points in Saturday’s road win over Texas. Getting him in rhythm is crucial for TCU.
“They’re much more explosive offensively with him,” Oklahoma State head coach Mike Boynton Jr. said. “He has a great ability to hit shots. It gives them more balance and takes some pressure off Alex [Robinson] to make plays. Then, the young guys can be in more comfortable roles, young guys like Kendric Davis and RJ Nembhard.”
The Horned Frogs’ defense aided Bane in getting those easy looks early as his first three made field goals came in the form of fast-break lay-ups.
“We got transition baskets early that’s where he got a lot of them,” Dixon said. “He made six out of eight three’s. You get some confidence when you see the ball go in early.”
Those easy looks in transition were created through TCU’s hard-nosed defense that was able to out-muscle Texas by 11 on the glass. The transition is further strengthened when the ball is rebounded by the team’s regular ball-handlers. Nembhard and Bane combined for 13 of the Horned Frogs’ 35 rebounds Saturday.
“That’s something we’ve worked on the last couple days in practice, which Coach Dixon emphasized,” TCU center Kevin Samuel said. “We just carried it over into the game.”
Samuel’s scoring presence will also be key for the Horned Frogs. His 66.7 field goal percentage from the floor is the second-best mark in the Big 12.
“We need to get the ball inside more with Kevin and JD [Miller] as well,” Dixon said. “We have to do that since it opens things up for other guys as well. He [Kevin] looks a little more comfortable at the free throw line now. His free throw numbers have improved all year. He works hard every single day.”
In order for Samuel’s impact to be felt, he’ll need to stay out of foul trouble and in the game, an issue that’s plagued the Horned Frogs in losses this season.
Their bench is essentially down to Davis and Nembhard since transfers and injuries have depleted Dixon’s roster. Ideally, the Horned Frogs would like to see their reserves play at least 20 minutes to prevent fouls and fatigue.
“We’re going to do everything we can to stay away from a lot of times where we’ve been down to six players, so we want everyone over 20 minutes,” Dixon said. “That’s something we’re making a concerted effort to do.”
At times, that fatigue has hit the Horned Frog backcourt of Bane and Robinson hard. Bane leads the conference in minutes played per game at 37 a night and Robinson at No. 3 with 36.1. However, both have shown the ability to power through their heavy workloads during the season.
“Desmond is the guy who can play the most minutes and has, but one stat we’re leading the conference in is minutes played, something we didn’t envision at the beginning of the year,” Dixon said.
Tip-off between TCU and OSU at 6 p.m. on Wednesday in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament in Oklahoma City.
“The energy in the program feels right and feels good,” Bane said. “Hopefully, we can keep it going and make a run.”