• Wendell Barnhouse

TCU: Basement to high-rise



FORT WORTH – The National Invitation Tournament was once the better option than the NCAA Tournament for basketball post-season competition. But for decades, the NIT has been that “other” tournament, a 32-team affair that has been taken over by the four-letter monolith in Indianapolis.

Quick. Who won last year’s NIT championship? No Googling.

If you know the answer was “TCU,” then you qualify as a card-carrying College Basketball Savant. If you didn’t know, you also probably don’t care. The NIT, despite the fact that it finishes in Madison Square Garden, The World’s Greatest Arena, is considered a consolation prize. Only two teams in men’s Division I basketball finish with a victory. The winner of the NIT is the champion of obscurity.

For the Horned Frogs, however, the triumph was singularly significant.

In the big picture, it was a championship for a school where basketball has long been a losing after thought.

In the smaller picture, it was a triumph for a team whose NCAA Tournament hopes disappeared over the last weeks of the regular-season. Just over a month from Selection Sunday, TCU was 16-8 overall and 4-7 in Big 12 play – matching the school’s highwater mark for conference wins. A seven-game losing streak – including three home-court losses by a total of five points – wrecked the NCAA hopes. Instead of flushing the season, a group of players with zero post-season experience put together an impressive and dominant run.

“Our history doesn’t stand out,” said TCU coach Jamie Dixon, a California native who played for the Frogs from 1984-87. “It’s big for us. You have to recognize where you’re at and then you have to have building steps and building blocks to be successful. To get there in a year is ahead of anybody’s schedule. Winning the NIT is difficult; you have to win five games, win on the road.”

Told that a random lunchtime crowd couldn’t name the winner of the NIT, Dixon countered, “Those same people probably couldn’t tell you who were in the Final Four last year.”

A season that would have been labeled a disappointment turned into a homecoming celebration. Dixon’s decision to leave Pitt to take over a moribund program was considered both curious and a coup.

Dixon had kept tabs on his former school as it floundered and then flourished – except in basketball. Gary Patterson has built a top-25 football program. Directed by Jim Schlossnagle, TCU baseball has made five College World Series trips since 2010. In a few return visits to campus, Dixon came to know and trust chancellor Dr. Victor J. Boschini, Jr. and athletic director Chris Del Conte.

“I could see there was a commitment to basketball but also to the entire athletic program and the success in other sports,” Dixon said. “Being in the Big 12 was a big reason. Not only is it probably the best conference, top to bottom, for basketball, but now TCU was back playing in a (geographic area where) it belonged.”

A renovated basketball arena, plenty of talent locally and in the state of Texas, TCU’s step up in conference status and Pitt’s move from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference were among the factors that convinced Dixon it was time to move.

“I was always someone who wanted to be the guy who stayed at one school for their entire career,” Dixon said. “(But Pitt) had changed with the move to the ACC. I had worked for nine different athletic directors.

“The timing was good because our kids aren’t in high school yet. When I started coaching, I always thought it would be a good life to wind up here as a coach. Part of me wanted to be the guy – and it sounds egotistical – to establish a winning basketball program here. I thought it could be done and I wanted to be the guy to do it.”

*****

There is a hint of “Field of Dreams” to this tale with Jamie Dixon playing the role of Shoeless Joe. TCU built it (a renovated basketball arena) and Dixon returned to his alma mater.

From 1961-2013, the Frogs played in Daniel-Meyer Arena. It was basketball in the round. The rectangular court was placed in the middle of a circular facility so the fans – what few there were – weren’t close to the court. The majority of fans who did attend qualified for AARP membership. The arena was dimly lit and the atmosphere was dull.

Before returning to a relevancy by joining the Big 12 in 2012, the Frogs wandered between the Western Athletic, Conference USA and Mountain West conferences. Those leagues provided few rivalries and many far-flung road trips. The need for a better basketball facility never arose to a serious funding level.

When the Southwest Conference disbanded in 1996, the schools in the league were playing in outdated facilities. Arkansas, which left the SWC four years before its implosion, quickly moved to build Bud Walton Arena – which conveniently opened in the 1993-94 national championship season.

TCU’s peer schools, for the most part, followed suit.

Baylor: Moved into its current facility, the Ferrell Center, in 1988.

Houston: Still plays in Hofheinz Pavilion, which opened in 1969.

SMU: Moody Coliseum was renovated in 2013 and is now a jewel of a facility.

Texas A&M: Moved from G. Rollie White, aka the Holler House on the Brazos, to Reed Arena in 1998.

Texas Tech: Left venerable Municipal Auditorium – where an air horn fell from the scoreboard over center court during a game – to United Super Markets Arena in 1999.

Texas (Erwin Center) and Rice are still in the venues where Southwest Conference games were played, but the Longhorns have plans underway for a new arena. In 2008, Rice renovated Autry Court (opened in 1950) and is now Tudor Fieldhouse.

Del Conte, who became TCU’s athletic director in 2009 and was a major force behind the school joining the Big 12, knew the school needed to do something about Daniel-Meyer. Ever since TCU was left out in the cold when the Big 12 was formed, it had made major investments to remake its football stadium, add an indoor practice facility for football, a basketball practice facility and regular upgrades to its baseball stadium.

Del Conte needed seed money to start the renovation of Daniel-Meyer. Enter Ed Schollmaier, the retired CEO of Alcon Laboratories. He and his wife Rae were long-time supporters of the basketball program. Their $10 million donation helped jump-start the financing for the $80 million renovation project for what is now known as the Ed and Rae Schollmaier Arena.

“He believed in basketball. He knew the power of what basketball could be,” Del Conte said of Schollmaier. “And every single day, he’d say, ‘We’ve got to do something for DMC – we’ve got to do something for this arena.’”

The new arena wasn’t the only reason TCU could hire Dixon, nor was it the reason he decided to leave Pitt. But it was a necessary cosmetic piece to the school’s basketball puzzle.

“At the end of every year, you ask the coaches, what do you need to win? They’d say, ‘This, this and this.’ The greatest glaring weakness for a long time was, ‘We don’t have a facility we can recruit to; we don’t have a league we can recruit to,’” Del Conte said. “Well, we’re in the premier league in this region. We didn’t have a facility that matched the league. Now we have a facility that matches the league. Any student-athlete within 100 miles that wants to play in the premier league in the finest facility has no excuse now not to come to TCU.”

*****

There are several hoops wastelands in college basketball, but it takes a long, hard look to find one like TCU – a school that has competed while in a major population area and for the most part in big-time conferences.

The Frogs have 16 seasons with 20 or more losses – four in the six seasons before Dixon’s arrival. There have been just nine 20-win seasons.

While joining the Big 12 has been a boon for sports like football and baseball, it was a bust for basketball. In the first four seasons, the Frogs won eight conference games – none on the road. TCU’s 0-18 league record in 2013-14 was the worst in Big 12 history.

“The won-loss record would indicate that the timing wasn’t great for TCU basketball going into the Big 12,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “But I actually think the timing was perfect in terms that the school and the athletic department had positioned itself to make the move.”

Former Nevada, LSU and Stanford coach Trent Johnson “fell on the grenade,” coaching the Frogs in their first four seasons in the Big 12. The talent wasn’t sufficient, the injury luck was bad and while the basketball facility was being gutted and renovated, the Frogs played home games at a local high school during the 2014-15 season.

“Trent (Johnson) went through four rough seasons, but he’s an excellent coach and he set the foundation for what Jamie and that team were able to do last season,” Fraschilla said.

Ironically, for a team lacking in positive bullet points, the Frogs’ NCAA Tournament resume isn’t awful: It’s just thin.

TCU has made seven NCAA appearances under four different coaches and has an overall 5-7 record. The first three appearances all produced at least one victory.

The only one-and-done team ended perhaps the best season in school history. In 1997-98, led by coach Billy Tubbs and powerful post man Lee Nailon, TCU had a 27-5 record that included a 14-0 roll through the WAC. That earned the Frogs a No. 5 seed.

OK, you know how this ends … No. 5 seeds face No. 12 seeds and that’s a popular first-round upset. Sure enough, No. 12 Florida State ended TCU’s season, 96-87.

TCU’s last NCAA victory came in 1987 when Dixon was the team’s senior point guard. After defeating Marshall in the first round, No. 4 seed TCU faced No. 5 Notre Dame in the second round. David Rivers, the Irish’s All-American guard, hit the game-winning free throws in a 58-57 victory after a controversial block/charge call.

The defender on the play? Jamie Dixon.

“It’s not something that still bugs me,” he said recently. “It’s a block/charge, it’s 50-50. What really bothered me was we were up nine, 10 points late, they made some shots … we were the better team.”

*****

According to research by Eli Boettger, 34.1 percent of teams that played in the NIT over the last decade earned spots in the NCAA Tournament the following season.

And over the last 10 years, the NIT champions have had similar success in following up with an NCAA berth. Those 10 teams averaged a 20-13 record and four made the NCAAs while six did not. Baylor, the 2013 NIT champ, reached the Sweet 16 the next season – the deepest run for an NIT champ over the last decade.

“If you have a lot of players returning, it’s a huge benefit in terms of post-season experience, building confidence in winning elimination games,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew, whose 2009 team finished second in the NIT and reached a regional final in 2010. “Fans think it’s not the NCAA, but it’s a great benefit for coaches. Post-season is post-season. You have to have the win-or-go-home mentality.”

TCU returns all five starters, led by seniors Kenrich Williams and Vladimir Brodziansky. Two top reserves from last season are back. Plus, the Frogs added forward Ahmed Hamdy, a graduate transfer from VCU. Junior guard Shawn Olden, who started his career at Pepperdine, is eligible, as are Lat Mayen and Kouat Noi, a pair of forwards from Australia.

Based off last season’s success, the returning talent and Dixon’s coaching skills, the preseason poll by the Big 12’s coaches had the Frogs were picked third.

TCU basketball.

Picked to finish third.

In the Big 12.

“I guess we’ve been picked last every year in the Big 12, so it’s a little bit of a change for us,” Dixon said. “It’s nice but it doesn’t mean a thing. I had coaching buddies over the summer that said you’re winning too quick. I never was the guy that was saying it’s going to take some time. We never said that. We expected to win and we expected to win now and that was our mentality.

“We won 24 games but in my mind we should have won more, so I wasn’t satisfied.”

Dixon, who played professionally in New Zealand after his college career, took his team Down Under for a summer tour that was designed to boost chemistry, mix in the newcomers and to strengthen is program’s recruiting ties there.

“Funny thing: The only American sports network they get down there is ESPN,” he said. “Everybody who watched the NIT, they think we won the national championship.”