In head coach Jim Christian’s first season, Horned Frog basketball recovered from a 1-3 start to move to 13-6 and 4-1 in conference play. If only the season could have ended there.
The Frogs fell apart down the stretch, losing 11 of their last 12 games, all to conference foes including a heartbreaking last-second loss to top-seeded Utah in the conference tournament quarterfinals.
This year, Christian is looking to put it behind him and lead the Horned Frogs to a smoother season with more experienced starters.
“We now have had some guys that have been through it, last year we had one guy who had been through it in Kevin Langford,” Christian said. “Now we have six or seven guys who’ve been through it, and they have a better understanding of how hard you have to play and how long you have to do it for.”
It won’t be easy, however. The Frogs lost their leading scorer and locker room leader (Langford) to graduation as well as last season’s assist and assist-to-turnover ratio leader Jason Ebie, who was dismissed in the spring following a violation of team rules.
One of the few bright spots as the Frogs slid down the rankings was the play of Ronnie “Tuffy” Moss. The Fort Worth-raised sophomore put it all together during the final three games, scoring 52 combined points in those contests.
Moss knows that this year, he will be expected to step his game up again. He has set a high standard for his time at TCU.
“My expectations here are a conference championship,” Moss said. “That’s what I want to do for this program and for the fans. Last year, coach had us out at the Utah game watching Utah cut the nets down, and that’s something we really want to do.”
But Moss will not be alone.
Moss is one of three returning players who averaged more than 10 points per game last year. The other two, preseason Mountain West first-teamer Zvonko Buljan and Edvinas Ruzgas, are entering their senior seasons and should be deadlier than ever.
Buljan did a little bit of everything for the Frogs last year, leading the team in rebounding by a large margin while averaging 12.3 points per game with a 50 percent field goal percentage. He also finished third on the team in steals and averaged 35 percent from behind the arc.
Ruzgas was the team’s primary three-point weapon last year, shooting nearly 100 more attempts than the next closest player and sinking 33 percent. He was also the team’s best free throw shooter at 79 percent, a category the Horned Frogs could struggle in without Langford, who shot 209 from the stripe last year. Buljan was second in attempts with 87 free throws.
Christian said the team will miss Langford for the leadership he brought.
“Your seniors have to lead,” Christian said. “You know, Zvonko Buljan and we have three seniors this year, last year we had one. So I think there is a little more strength in numbers … Everybody on our team has to be committed.to getting better every day.”
Langford’s graduation also left a major hole in the TCU frontcourt.
The Frogs will enter the year without a healthy center on the roster, and their tallest players are listed as 6-9 on the team’s Web site. Buljan is 6-9, as well as freshman forward Nikola Cerina. Sophomore transfer Cheick Kone was expected to claim some time at center, but a knee injury will keep him out for the year.
With the absence of a true frontcourt presence, the guards will need to create more opportunities for open looks outside. Virginia Tech junior transfer Hank Thomas set a freshman record with 113 assists with the Hokies, but will be sitting out this year in accordance to NCAA transfer rules.
However, another transfer, junior Greg Hill, will be active this year. Hill came from Midland College, which is a junior college and, according to NCAA rules, he will not have to sit out a season. Hill was a high scorer at Midland, where he averaged 15.5 points per game.
Christian said despite the backcourt uncertainty, he thinks another year learning his offensive system will help the team score.
“Guys understand a little bit more of what we’re trying to do,” Christian said. “That was a huge emphasis for us this year – is to be a team that can score points, and I made this point earlier,if you can’t get to 70 (points) in (the Mountain West,) you’re going to have a tough time winning.”
Christian said the younger players will be involved early this year.
“We don’t have a lot of players,” Christian said. “When you inherit a program that only had three returning players, everybody who comes in to the program has a chance to contribute. That’s why they come here, and we’re expecting them to do that.”
TCU had only eight players who participated in more than 21 games last year, and this year could be similar if the three freshmen on the roster can’t break in to the rotation.