On March 17th, TCU basketball’s season ended abruptly amid concerns of the rapidly spreading coronavirus. All NCAA basketball postseason tournaments, including the NCAA tournament and NIT, were canceled.
Now, 253 days later, the Frogs are ready to get back in action.
“We haven’t played basketball in a long time,” guard R.J. Nembhard said. “So being able to come back [and] power through this training in July and all the way up until now basically November has been fun.”
After TCU finished near the bottom of the Big 12 in the spring, expectations are low for what the team can accomplish this season. The conference preseason poll ranks the Frogs ninth, ahead of only Kansas State.
On top of that, the Big 12 has been perhaps the most talked-about conference over the offseason. Along with having two of the top six teams in the preseason AP Top 25 in Baylor (2) and Kansas (6), the conference added big names like freshman Cade Cunningham (No. 1 prospect in the class of 2020) and Georgetown transfer Mac McClung.
Regardless, the doubt placed on TCU isn’t bothering the Frogs.
“There is a lot of hype around the conference,” Nembhard said. “Why wouldn’t you want that? You have a chance to go make history. All the eyes are on our conference. Why not us?”
Though TCU appears outmatched, the uncharted waters of playing college basketball amid a global pandemic provide an opportunity for the unexpected to take place.
Testing for COVID-19 a minimum of three times per week, teams never know when a key player or position group could be sidelined for a period of time. TCU head coach Jamie Dixon shared with the media Tuesday that his team has faced this problem throughout the preseason, though he is unable to share specifics.
“We’ve had challenges, can’t go into specifics, but everybody has challenges,” Dixon said. “It’s not worth who’s had more, who’s had less. We’re going to get after it, try to have the best practice we can possibly have today as we’ve tried every day this preseason, offseason.”
Like Dixon alluded to, every team is dealing with COVID-19 in its own way, so the Frogs are taking it one game at a time. Because of this, the fifth-year head coach said that they’ve prepared to play with several different lineups, despite not having the ability to get much 5-on-5 action in practice with players out at times.
Another change for TCU this fall will be the environment at games. Just 1,600 fans will be allowed at Schollmaier Arena, which normally seats 6,800. Around the Big 12, teams like Kansas and Kansas State have also announced that they will hold games without fans at least through the early parts of the season.
“The biggest change is your bench,” Dixon said. “You look down the thing, and you don’t know where your assistants are. You don’t know where your players are.”
The layouts of each team’s bench will be more spread out than usual to prevent spread of COVID-19.
COVID-19 is not the only hill for the Frogs to get over, though. They also have the difficult task of replacing one of the best players in program history–Desmond Bane.
TCU’s all-time leader in games, wins and three pointers made as well as the third all-time leading scorer, Bane was drafted by the Boston Celtics before being traded to the Memphis Grizzlies via the 30th-overall pick of the 2020 NBA draft.
Finishing as a member of the All-Big 12 First Team, Bane represents a crater for the Frogs to fill, averaging 16.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game his senior season.
TCU also lost guards Jaire Grayer and Edric Dennis Jr., who combined for 13.7 points per game last year before graduating in the spring.
To make up for this, Dixon and his squad will look to rely on their two most prominent remaining sources of leadership–center Kevin Samuel and guard R.J. Nembhard.
At times last season, Samuel was a force to be reckoned with, averaging 10 points, 8.4 rebounds and a conference-best 2.7 blocks per game.
ESPN broadcaster and college basketball legend Dick Vitale included Samuel on his players to watch in the 2020-2021 season list, calling the center the “All-Human Eraser.”
Despite all of this, Samuel was left off the Preseason All-Big 12 list.
“Yea, it keeps me motivated, to be honest,” Samuel said about the snub. “[I] just keep continuing to work to prove the critics wrong.”
Alongside Samuel, Nembhard saw a sort of a coming-out party last season as a sophomore. Putting up 12.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game (all significant jumps from the year prior), the Keller native proved himself to be reliable in the clutch, hitting a game-winning three-pointer against UC Irvine in November and a game-tying three in January against Iowa State in a game TCU later won.
Though Nembhard played shooting guard during his early time at TCU, Dixon moved him to point guard midway through last season. In late October, Dixon told the media that he still trusted the junior the most in that position to start the new campaign.
“I’ve played point guard my whole life since I touched a basketball,” Nembhard said. “My father was a professional point guard, so that role has kind of been natural for me.”
The leadership of Samuel and Nembhard will be vital for any success TCU seeks to have this year, as only four other scholarship players on the roster who have seen the floor in the purple and white combined for just under 14 points a year ago.
Sophomore PJ Fuller will also certainly be a player to watch for the Frogs. Though he averaged just 5.7 points per game last season, the guard showed improvement as the season went on, dropping a career-high 21 points in TCU’s win over No. 2 Baylor last February.
The Frogs are adding four newcomers in freshmen Terren Frank, Mike Miles and Eddie Lampkin as well as USC transfer Chuck O’Bannon, but Dixon said that the pandemic has slowed down their transition onto the team. Regardless, guys like Miles and O’Bannon should be scoring options for the Frogs as the season goes on.
TCU Basketball begins its season on Wednesday, Nov. 25, at home against Houston Baptist University. Tipoff is at 7 p.m.