By Rich Ruben
The Trojans’ schedule slows down this month; the next game is at 6:00 local time on Friday. After TCU, there are only three remaining games in December before conference play begins in early January. The Trojans are 7-2, while the TCU Horned Frogs are 5-1. SC is ranked 35th in the latest ESPN BPI rankings and TCU is number 42. The Frogs smoked the Trojans 96-61 last December. That TCU team finished 23-14 and lost in the NIT semifinals. Both teams had a lot of roster turnover, and most current players were not on their respective teams last year.
Although TCU was picked to finish ninth in the ten school Big 12, head coach Jamie Dixon has had a tremendous career with over 400 wins and I doubt they will finish that low. Dixon is in his fourth season at his alma mater after a very successful eleven year run as head coach at Pitt. His Panthers won almost 73% of their games, playing first in the Big East and later in the ACC. At Pitt, his team won over 30 games one season and over 20 every season but one. Pitt appeared in the AP top 25 at some point in the season every year but one. He guided Pitt to the NCAA tournament 11 times. His first three teams at TCU all won over 20 games.
In Dixon’s second season at TCU he led the team to the NCAA tournament, the first tournament appearance for the Frogs in 20 years. They lost to fellow Big 12 conference member Texas in the NIT semis last year, after beating the Horns twice in the regular season. They only have four returning players (the same as SC) and are getting very good leadership and production from this group (while the Trojans’ play has been more spotty).
Dixon has always been known for coaching teams which are very physical and relentless on the boards and on defense. His record and reputation led UCLA to pursue him very hard last spring, but ultimately a deal could not be reached because the Bruins would not or could not pay his very large buy out. Dixon was also rumored to be on the Trojans’ radar after Kevin O’Niel was let go, before S.C. hired Andy Enfield.
TCU has played a relatively weak non conference schedule to date. They lost to Clemson in overtime by 2 in the first game of a tournament in T- Mobile Arena in Las Vegas (the site of the Pac 12 Tournament), then won the consolation game against Wyoming. The Frogs earlier beat UCI at home by 1 on a three point shot with 3 seconds to go.
6’6” senior guard Desmond Bane leads TCU. He is a preseason All Big 12 second team selection, and is averaging 18 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3 assists and 2.3 turnovers so far this season, while playing 37 minutes per game. He is shooting 46.5% from three, making 20-43, and is the type of outside scoring threat the Trojans have struggled to contain so far this season. 6’11” sophomore center Kevin Samuel is the other key returning player. He is averaging 10.8 points and 8.5 boards, and has made 30-41 shots from the field.
Other important players for the Frogs include sophomore guard RJ Nembhard who is averaging 13,4 points and getting much more playing time this season. Jaime Grayer is a 6’5” grad transfer from George Mason and is contributing 8.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. A second grad transfer, 6’3” Edric Dennis Jr from UT Arlington, was expected to be the starting point guard, but has mostly played off the bench. He is averaging 9.5 ppg, but is only making 35.7% from the field.
TCU and SC have a lot of similarities. They both have a few key returning players, a couple of grad transfer guards, and rely a lot on young players (in TCU’s case, mostly sophomores). TCU is shooting 44% from the field, 35.8% from three, and only 60.3% from the line. SC’s numbers are similar- 44% from the field, 33.7% from three, and 67.3% from the free throw line. The biggest difference is that a much higher percentage of the Trojan points come from the front court players who are shooting a very high percentage from the field.
I think this game will be like several SC games to date. The Trojans front court is much better than the Frogs’ and the game may be decided by how well the SC guards shoot and defend. TCU’s strength is its guard play. SC needs a defensive effort like the second half against Harvard, and must be prepared for a very physical game.
The Trojans’ individual stats in their first nine games are a mixed bag. Onyeka Okongwu is averaging just under 18 ppg and is shooting 61.6% from the field. He has combined several dominating games with others where he has been less of a scoring factor. He also averaged 9 rebounds and almost 3 blocks. His freshman forward running mate Isaiah Mobley has settled in and has played much more consistently over the last several games. He is averaging 9.1 ppg on 58.2% shooting and 6.7 rebounds. Freshman point guard Ethan Anderson continues to have a good assist to turnover ratio, at about 2.5-1, and fellow freshman point guard Kyle Sturdivant may have earned more playing time with his 11 points against Harvard. SC’s two grad transfers, Quinton Adlesh and Daniel Utomi, combined for six threes in the last game, by far their best production so far.
The problem for the Trojans is that the guards have struggled to make shots and are inconsistent on defense. This has allowed teams to cheat and drop further into the paint to defend the Trojan bigs. With Big O and Isaiah shooting so well, the team’s collective 44% from the field reflects how much the guards have struggled. The only guard shooting over 40% from the field is Elijah Weaver at 41.1%, including 46.7% from three, but he has only taken 21 shots from long range. The only other Trojan who is shooting well from three is Max Agbonkpolo, making 9-22; he has the potential to be a very good long range scorer, but is averaging less than 7 minutes per game as a result of concerns about his defense and physicality.
The guard play was much better on both ends in the Harvard game. If the Trojans again get better shooting from their guards and they play aggressive defense on the perimeter, the Trojans have a good chance to win. This is an important game for SC’s resume. I expect the Trojans will have learned some lessons from the games in Orlando and that the guards will play better defense, which will help the Trojans to beat TCU.