Why TCU basketball is off to its best start in school history

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    It’s the night of Nov. 12, 2013 and the TCU Horned Frogs are hosting the Longwood Lancers at Daniel-Meyer Coliseum.

    The game is the 2013-2014 season home opener for the Horned Frogs who are coming off a loss to their rival SMU. The arena is half-empty; the population of the student section only consists of a couple of dozen fans.

    After the opening tip and a combined seven empty possessions, the Lancers score the game’s first basket. The squad from Farmville, Virginia surrenders its lead in the second half but the Lancers come back and beat the Frogs by a score of 82-79.

    (VIDEO: Shuttle system could transport students to TCU basketball games next semester)

    The crowd somberly exits the arena, with some fans are muttering about how the Frogs are in for a long season.

    They were not wrong.

    The Frogs struggled at both ends of the court, especially under the basket. TCU ranked 340th in the country in rebounding after three key forwards were injured for much of the season.

    TCU finished its 2013-2014 season 9-22 overall and 0-18 in the Big 12. The Frogs lost by single digits only three times in conference play and ended the season on a 19-game losing streak.

    Fast forward to Dec. 13, 2014. The 9-0 Horned Frogs are hosting to the McNeese State Cowboys. The game is at Wilkerson-Greines Activity Center, the Frogs’ temporary home while Daniel Meyer Coliseum undergoes a $45 million renovation.

    The gymnasium, which is typically used by local high school basketball teams, is located six miles east of campus, but just one mile south of a low-security federal prison.

    The 4,759-seat arena looks like an adequate venue for a small university basketball team. The hunting vest-orange colored seats that match the basketball shaped center court circle are split into four big areas located behind both sidelines and both baselines.

    The TCU pep band stands in seats behind the baseline on the eastern side of the gym. Right beside the band on the front row stands senior Andrew Felts along with a dozen other students.

    Last year, the sports broadcasting and finance double major founded Purple Haze, a student organization that aims to increase student attendance and improve the atmosphere at TCU home basketball games.

    (Also on TCU 360: Frogs down McNeese State, 68-50)

    The Kansas City native recently joined onto SB Nation’s Frog’s O’ War fan blog to write about TCU basketball.

    Felts is not the type of TCU super fan who wears face paint, dyes his hair purple and dresses in nothing but purple and white striped suspenders. He’s wearing a purple TCU fleece jacket, blue jeans and glasses with his straight blonde hair parted to the side.

    Felts and the other reported 3,978 fans in attendance, which is nearly identical to the number of fans who attended last season’s collapse against Longwood, watched the Frogs and the Cowboys run up and down the court for almost two minutes before either team could score a basket, just like that night in early November.

    But unlike last year’s embarrassment against the Lancers, the Frogs were able to get on the scoreboard first.

    Sophomore Chris Washburn made a layup, which was then followed by another basket by senior Trey Ziegler. Sophomore Kenrich Williams added three pairs of free throws and two layups to give the Frogs a 29-20 lead going into halftime.

    Washburn, Ziegler and Williams accounted for 16 of TCU’s 29 first half points. None of the three players played a single minute for the Horned Frogs during the previous season. Both Washburn and Ziegler sat on the bench last year due to NCAA transfer rules while Williams played his freshman season at New Mexico Junior College.

    Felts said the addition of the three transfers is one of the main reasons why TCU is one of nine college basketball teams in country to remain undefeated, but he also noted that the players who were injured last year and now back on the court are also making a big impact.

    Last season, the Frogs knew they would be without Washburn and Ziegler, but they also lost junior forward Devonta Abron and freshman center Aaron Durley, who both suffered season-ending injuries before the season even began.

    Junior forward Amric Fields later injured his knee and had to miss the last 10 games of the season. During the same week that the Frogs lost Fields, freshman center Karviar Shepherd had to miss a couple games after injuring his hand against Kansas. By the end of January of last season, the Frogs were left with only seven scholarship players on the roster.

    (Also on TCU 360: Undefeated TCU basketball claims Corpus Christi title)

    This season, Shepherd, Fields and Abron are all back and healthy. The trio accounted for a combined 43 minutes played, 16 rebounds and 17 points against McNesse State.

    After the players ran off the court into their locker rooms, a pack of approximately 100 five year-olds fled onto the court to perform a choreographed dribbling routine with their half-sized basketballs during the halftime intermission. As the crowd cheered on the youngsters while they bounced their balls to an upbeat song, Carlos Mendez sat at the long media table behind the score keepers while looking over a sheet filled with the first half statistics

    This is Mendez’s first year covering TCU athletics for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He’s followed TCU football and baseball in past seasons, but this is his first season keeping up with the basketball team. Before becoming a TCU beat writer, Mendez covered the Dallas Cowboys and NASCAR. His Twitter bio reads, “Know something about .500 football and going in circles.”

    Despite his lack of experience with TCU basketball, Mendez, like Felts, said the Frogs’ improved depth has made the team better, but said head coach Trent Johnson’s defensive-minded philosophies have played a part in the Frogs undefeated record.

    “The main thing is emphasizing rebounding and defense,” Mendez said. “It sounds like some of these guys are really enjoying that part of the game.”

    After the children picked up their basketballs and waved to their parents in the stands, TCU came out of the locker room and went on a 16-3 run to put the game out of reach.

    The Horned Frogs’ gave a stellar defensive effort after an inconsistent performance in its previous game against Furman. TCU blocked 11 shots, grabbed 49 rebounds and held McNeese State to the second lowest point total the Frogs have allowed this season.

    When the final buzzer sounded, the scoreboard read, TCU 68, McNeese State 50.

    Felts and the other students standing next to the pep band held up white pieces of poster board that formed the message “10-0.”

    The win marks TCU’s best start in the program’s 106-year history.

    TCU’s undefeated record may seem like a big accomplishment to some, but the Frogs’ schedule thus far hasn’t been difficult. According to kenpom.com’s ratings, TCU’s strength of schedule is the third weakest among 351 Division I college basketball teams.

    That will change when the Horned Frogs enter Big 12 play in January.

    CBS Sports college basketball expert Jerry Palm projects that the Big 12 will send six of its 10 teams to the NCAA tournament. Currently, there are five Big 12 teams ranked in the AP Top 25 rankings; Kansas and Texas are both ranked in the top 10.

    Felts said he think’s the Horned Frog’s success will carry over to conference play but he only expects four to six wins in the Big 12 because of the conference’s strength.

    He also said that if TCU wins its three remaining non-conference games along with a few Big 12 games, the Horned Frogs have a chance to make the NIT or even the NCAA Tournament.

    The Frogs last played in the NIT in 2005 and the NCAA Tournament in 1998.

    After the Horned Frogs and the Cowboys lined up in front of the scorer’s table and shook hands, Trent Johnson walked into the post game press conference and praised his players for their defensive effort.

    “It’s hard to be good all the time,” said Johnson. “These guys want to play well, they want to guard, and they want to rebound. Sometimes it’s not like that every game, but if it was like that every game, everybody would be undefeated.”

    The Horned Frogs received 80 votes in this week’s AP Top 25 rankings; the Frogs have the second most votes for a team outside the Top 25. One reporter asked Johnson if the team discusses the possibility of being ranked if it continues to win its non-conference games.

    “No. We don’t talk about it,” Johnson responded with a stern look on his face.

    PurpleMenace.com publisher Billy Wessels asked Johnson if he felt good about the   team’s 10-0 record.

    “All 10-0 means is that you got another game to play, you got practice. What do you want me to do? Jump up and down? I’m a realist here,” said Johnson.

    The TCU head coach said that the only people the Frogs’ undefeated non-conference matters to is his family because they want him to be happy on Christmas Day. Johnson said that he hasn’t had a good Christmas since he beat Kansas while he was the head coach of Nevada in 2003.

    But when asked why his team has improved this season, Johnson gave a more sincere answer that summed up Felts and Mendez’s observations about this year’s team.

    “We’ve got bigger players, we’ve got better players and we’re healthy,” said Johnson. “Rebounding, defending and taking care of it gives you an opportunity to beat a lot of people.”

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