Off The Radar, Rivals TCU and SMU Building to A Special Season

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FORT WORTH – Perhaps if you’re a card-carrying Hoops Head, you’re aware that TCU won the National Invitation Tournament last March. If you ask, “what’s a National Invitation Tournament” you forfeit the right to fill out a bracket in the office pool.

The Frogs are moving up like George and Weezy but they’re spending most of the non-conference season playing off-Broadway. There’s not much buzz about the defending NIT champs. True enough, TCU’s No. 20 ranking in The Associated Press poll is the program’s best since 1998. That’s also the last year it participated in the NCAA Tournament.

That drought might finally be close to ending. The Frogs improved to 9-0 and extended the nation’s longest winning streak to 14 games with a 94-83 victory over SMU.

In football, the teams play for the Iron Skillet trophy. In basketball, there’s nothing but bragging rights and banking a bullet point for the NCAA men’s tournament committee.

“It’s huge for our program and our future moving forward even with this being my last season,” TCU’s Kenrich Williams said. “This is one of the things I wanted to do my senior was beat SMU and we were able to do it.”

Williams, a 6-foot-7 guard/forward who collects double doubles like Meryl Streep collects Oscar nominations, had 27 points, nine rebounds, five assists and three steals (plus seven turnovers). His stat-sheet stuffing in the shooting categories were outstanding – 7-of-8 on field goals, 5-of-6 on 3-pointers and 8-of-10 on free throws.

“You can’t envision that every night,” TCU coach Jamie Dixon said of Williams’ shooting. “We’ve told him to shoot open shots. He’s been shooting well all summer and all fall. I guess we can give him a hard time he didn’t get a double double. People are starting to know who he is.”

Separated by 40 miles, a 60-minute drive and connected by history, TCU and SMU are approaching 200 games in the series that dates to the discarded Southwest Conference.

Both programs have had spotty to negligible hoops success, but they entered Tuesday night’s game with a combined record of 15-2. For this rare moment in time, both schools have basketball programs that are, well, dare it be said … good.

Dixon is in his second season at TCU and Tim Jankovich is in his second full season on The Hilltop, taking over for Hall of Famer and perpetual man-in-motion Larry Brown. Neither school has had such quality coaching at the same time.

Still, the outstanding matchup brought a sub-sellout crowd of 6,840 to Schollmaier Arena (some Mustangs fans might have avoided the contest to mourn football coach Chad Morris leaving for Arkansas).

The alternating rhythmic chants of T-C-U and S-M-U as the teams traded runs illustrated the fan divide until the Frogs seized control for good in the last 10 minutes.

Dallas and Fort Worth anchor a metropolitan glob referred to as the Metroplex and there’s work to be done to turn the area into Tobacco Road – maybe Smokeless Tobacco Road is a more realistic goal. While football season is on pause until the bowls start, drumming up more than passing interest in hoops is difficult until the third month on the calendar. Tuesday’s game was televised on FoxSportsSouthwest-Plus. That’s the “alternate channel” for the regional carrier. The NHL’s Dallas Stars got the channel that most remotes can find.

The folks in attendance or figuring out the cable channel saw TCU win the first of two important games this week and give the Big 12 a banner night. The Frogs will face No. 22 Nevada in the Hall of Fame Classic in Los Angeles Friday. Texas Tech handed Nevada its first loss of the season in Lubbock Tuesday night while West Virginia gave Virginia its first loss and Texas won at VCU. The Big 12 is 69-11 in non-conference play.

“This is a big week for us,” Dixon said. “We’ll play whoever. We wanted to play a single game, neutral site game against the best team we could find. We got the team nobody wants to play (Nevada).”

Before Tuesday night, SMU had its grass cut twice in the Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. The Mustangs lost to Northern Iowa and Western Kentucky by a total of five points.

Jankovich is earning the reputation as a mad scientist for his lineup matchups that help mask a lack of size. SMU only has one player taller than 6-foot-8 and Jankovich has no fear employing five-guard lineups – even if they’re all taller than 6-foot-3. The Mustangs packed to the lane to try and slow TCU’s 6-foot-9 center Vlad Brodziansky. He was limited to three shots and seven points.

But the desire to defend the paint led to too many open threes. The Frogs were 12-of-24 on 3-pointers and shot 56.5 percent from the field. TCU had 21 assists on 26 field goals.

“We didn’t lose on offense,” said Jankovich, whose team shot 51.7 percent from the floor. “What we did offensively will win on the road most of the time. We lost on defense. Give TCU credit. They shot the ball great. They’re hard to guard. We helped ‘em, we were maybe a step slow.”

Two of SMU’s victories came over ranked Pac-12 teams as the Mustangs handed Arizona, then ranked No. 2, one of its three losses in the Bahamas. In their last outing, they put away No. 14 USC.

SMU players talked about “evening the score” and giving the Trojans “a dose of their own medicine” but those comments reflect a big reason why Metroplex college basketball remains too far down the food chain.

USC beat SMU twice last season, including ending its fabulous 30-win season with a first-round upset in the NCAA Tournament. A Mustangs team hoping to make it to at least the second weekend barely had time to unpack. Getting their revenge in a November non-conference home game hardly balances out a March Madness loss.

Dixon and Jankovich are outstanding coaches running ascendant programs in a metro area that produces dozens of talented basketball players. Mix in membership in the Big 12 and the ACC and most of the boxes for basketball success are checked.

What has yet to be marked off is NCAA success for both teams. Since 1985, 58 percent of teams that won the NIT made the NCAAs the following season. SMU has made the bracket two of the last three seasons but hasn’t won an NCAA game since 1988; TCU’s last NCAA victory came in 1987.

Three months from now, we’ll find out if things will change or remain the same.