There are currently two ranked teams in the state of Texas, with Baylor sitting at No. 7 and Texas A&M at No. 12 after losses this past weekend. But if you scroll down the AP poll to the "others receiving votes" section, you'll see a team there that might surprise you: the TCU Horned Frogs.
Raegan Pebley's squad is off to a 6-0 start, their best since the 2003-2004 season and the best start of the Pebley era.
TCU isn't beating elite teams, but it's doing what a team needs to do, which is play the teams in front of you and take care of business. Yes, that's such a cliche way of looking at basketball, but it's also something that rings true: good teams beat the teams they're supposed to beat.
TCU has won four of their six games by double digits, including a 10-point win over a 5-2 Cornell team. Its two close games were a five-point win over Robert Morris and a one-point victory over SMU.
Again, TCU's schedule hasn't been the toughest. Cornell's the only team that currently holds a winning record, and the real tough part comes later this month when it faces Texas A&M. But the Aggies aside, this is a non-conference schedule that's pretty perfectly set up for the Horned Frogs to enter Big 12 play with momentum on their side. (I should note, I'm actually not much of a believer in momentum as a game-to-game thing, but winning basketball games is a good way to get everyone on the same page on both ends of the floor, so in that case a solid non-conference showing should trickle over to conference play.)
Let's dive into the numbers and figure out what the Horned Frogs are doing so well this year.
Threes and Frees
As a team, the Horned Frogs are shooting 34.7 percent from deep, which ranks them 74th in the nation in that area.
Most of that damage is coming via Jaycee Bradley and Kianna Ray, who combine to take 13.8 threes per game. Bradley's shooting 36.8 percent on her attempts and has been excellent as a spot up shooter, scoring 1.5 points per possession on spot ups, which ranks in the 98th percentile nationally.
Here's a play where TCU does a good job taking advantage of...whatever Boise is doing defensively. The Bronocos have a defender planted down in the paint protecting against the drive, but that just leaves Bradley wide open in the corner. Boise has a defender who's aware of Bradley's presence and kind of slides over that direction, but she is also kind of having to play a role where she can go down to contest Adeola Akomolafe. When that defender moves to defend Akomolafe, Bradley is once again open in the corner. The ball moves her way, she quickly lifts up and fires, and BAM, three points for the Horned Frogs.
As for free throws, TCU is doing a pretty poor job of converting on their free throws this year — they're currently 343rd out of 351 DI teams in free throw shooting percentage, which is obviously bad. But they are getting to the line, ranking 36th in DI in free throw rate, and that high free throw rate is a sign of the team's aggressiveness. They're getting fouled, and the kinds of shots you get fouled on are usually on contact close to the basket, and taking those kind of high-percentage looks is a good way to get the ball into the hoop.
Now, if you're a TCU fan, you have to hope they can convert these at a better rate. They were still bad at free throws last year, but 65.3 percent is better than 53.2 percent, and getting that free throw percentage up 10ish percent would be a huge victory for this offense.
I don't write a lot about defense because it can be so hard to quantify defensive impact and all that, but let's talk about TCU's defense because it's a big part of what they do.
TCU's opponents are scoring just 55 points per game, and their 11.2 average margin of victory ranks 65th in the country. Per 100 possessions, they're allowing 74.5 points, which ranks 21st best in DI. Opponents score just 0.64 points per play against them, and TCU ranks in the top 70 in steals per game, steal rate, blocks per game, and block rate.
This all paints a pretty clear picture: the Horned Frogs are a good defensive squad.
The eye test also backs this up. Let's look at some moments from that Boise State game.
On this one, Kianna Ray does a great job seeing the passing lane and positioning herself for the steal. On the year, Ray is swiping away 2.2 steals per game, ranking her in the 95th percentile nationally in that category. It's part of a Horned Frogs defensive attack that's forcing the 15th most turnovers per game this season. The amount of pressure this team applies defensively is a big part of that success, and it helps them use defense to create offensively on the break and is likely a big factor in why this team's been more efficient in transition than in the half-court this year, as the turnovers allow you to get moving the other way and to often do so with a player advantage.
Again, this team takes advantage of mistakes. A bad pass by Boise State ends up in Lauren Heard's hands, and she's off on the break and finishing at the other end faster than you can say "wow, Lauren Heard is running the fast break really well."
Defense. Fuels. Offense.
And speaking of Lauren Heard:
A good way to start out the second half of a game? Steal the first possession that the other team has, then go and get the layup and the foul on the other end immediately. Heard does that. Her 1.8 steals per game aren't quite Kianna Ray numbers, but she can still make things happen when she needs to, and this Boise State game is a good example of that. Heard had the two steals, plus added five rebounds, four assists, and 25 points. She's had two games with 20 or more points this season.
The Road to the Big 12
TCU kicks off conference play on January 3rd against Texas. They've got five games before then, with only one of those -- Texas A&M -- feeling like some insurmountable hill that they've got to climb.
The path to conference play begins on Saturday against a 3-4 Auburn team. Then's the Aggies game on the 11th, followed by a 5-2 Ohio team whose 2019 resume looks a lot like the Horned Frogs. I think TCU's rebounding should give them the edge in that one.
Then comes a 2-2 Texas State team, and while I know DCTB editor Ishmael Johnson might want to jump in here with an editor's note or something to challenge me when I say this, TCU should beat the Bobcats, who are one of the worst scoring offenses in college basketball so far.
Middle Tennessee, who sit at 5-3, are an interesting final test before Big 12 play arrives. The Blue Raiders were picked to finish second in the Conference USA preseason poll, and they've lost to ranked Kentucky and Gonzaga, plus lost by one to Arizona State. MTSU is a good team, and if you're looking for a non-A&M opponent who could trip up the Frogs, this is who I'd be circling on your basketball calendar.
I'm getting dangerously close to predicting TCU makes the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010. This is Pebley's strongest Horned Frogs team, and they're playing great basketball. Maybe some of that's the competition they're facing, but it's still hard to watch this team and not think "they'll be competitive in conference play," especially with Texas struggling and the chance to be the Big 12's top non-Baylor team seemingly up for grabs.