Things have not been easy in 2005 for third year coach Neil Dougherty. After finishing last season with a respectable 21-14 record and earning a berth in the NIT tournament, things have not gone as expected in Fort Worth. First, Dougherty lost his top player, power forward Chudi Chinweze, to an off-season ACL injury that will keep the big man sidelined until at least late December [note: at press time, Chinweze was not expected to play in tonight's game]. Then, the Horned Frogs suffered the indignity of getting taken apart by in-state rival Texas Tech, coming out on the wrong end of an 81-54 drubbing on Wednesday night. Yes—that would be the same Bobby Knight coached Texas Tech team that Syracuse annihilated during the preseason Coaches versus Cancer tournament in Madison Square Garden on 11/17 [81-46]. It's hard to imagine that the Horned Frogs will be able to mount much of a challenge against the Orange tonight, but one thing is certain: after the roller coaster outcome of the Manhattan game, never say never. Apparently anything is possible with this relatively inexperienced Syracuse team.
Texas Christian Season to Date: As mentioned, the Horned Frogs have opened the 2005-2006 campaign with a disappointing 1-4 record, that includes a pair of losses to teams [Tarleton State and Drake] that were expected to be easy wins for TCU. None of the losses have been close, as TCU has dropped each contest by 7 or more points. The lone victory was a two-point squeaker [76-74] that the Horned Frogs were able to pull out at home over Jackson State. TCU has lost the other two home games that it has played this year, and has not won on the road. Clearly, this is a team that is struggling. In the two games that TCU has faced high-major opponents [Oklahoma State and Texas Tech], they've gotten dismantled.
Series History: Syracuse holds a 3-0 series edge in head-to-head matchups against TCU. The most recent matchup took place on Christmas day in 1997, when Todd Burgan and Ryan Blackwell led an underdog Syracuse team to 82-78 victory over a heavily favored TCU squad coached by NCAA villain, Billy Tubbs.
Meet the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs: With his team reeling from the loss of Chinweze, coach Dougherty, a long time Roy Williams assistant, has struggled to field a lineup capable of playing with any semblance of consistent aptitude. Simply put, the Horned Frogs don't shoot well, they don't rebound well, and they aren't able to defend the interior. TCU also converts only 59.7% of it's free throws, and without it's go to player anchoring the paint, has generally looked lost trying to execute offensive sets with any semblance of success.
Still, even without Chinweze, the cupboard isn't entirely bare. Leading the way for TCU is combination guard Nile Murray, a 6-4 200 pound scorer who began his career at Temple University. Murray leads the team in scoring [18 ppg] and assists [3.4 apg], and is second in rebounds [4.4 rpg]. But he also leads the team in turnovers [4.2 per game], and shoots a paltry 40.9% from the field. Murray has emerged as TCU's go to player, and hence merits the majority of defensive attention from the opposition. Despite this, he still shoots an impressive 45.2% from three point range, having connected on 14 of 31 of his attempts this year. Given his perimeter marksmanship, Murray's eyes must light up at the prospect of facing the Syracuse zone...especially if the Orange play a lineup that features Gerry McNamara and the diminutive Josh Wright up top.
Murray's scoring sidekick has been burly senior Judson Stubbs, a 6-7 230 pound forward with a game that belies his physical stature in that he prefers to face the basket and float on the perimeter while eschewing contact in the paint. Not surprisingly, Stubbs's numbers are not quite what you'd expect from an experienced big. Despite ranking second on the team in scoring with 12 points per game, Stubbs shoots a mere 38.3% from the floor. Although he hasn't quite found the range this season, Stubbs is an accomplished marksman who is connecting on a respectable 37.5% of his three point attempts. Stubbs leads the Horned Frogs with a 6.2 rebounds per game average, but is not much of an interior defender.
Sophomore Brent Hackett is third on the team in scoring at 9.8 points per game. Hackett, a 6-3 wing guard from Fort Worth, is primarily a jump shooter without much of an off-the-dribble game. Although he only shoots 30.8% from the field, his numbers from trifecta are more impressive [38.5%, on 10 of 26]. Hackett is second on the team in assists [2.4], but offsets that with 2.6 turnovers per game. Although not the most versatile guard that the Orange will face this year, Hackett represents another TCU shooter that the Orange defenders will have to locate and stick with in defensive sets.
The other main scorer for the Horned Frogs is Blake Adams, a 6-6 205 pound small forward from Houston. Despite playing only 19.8 minutes per game, Adams contributes 8.6 points and 3.6 rebounds per game. He ranks second on the team in field goal percentage [46.9%], and even hits a respectable percentage from three point range, as well [38.9%, on 7 of 18]. Adams comes off of the bench for Coach Dougherty, infusing scoring pop and versatility into the TCU lineup.
Joining Murray, Stubbs, and Hackett in the starting lineup will be sophomore Neiman Owens and junior Femi Ibikunie. Owens, a 6-4 guard, is a scrappy hustler who has not gotten on track offensively this season. Although he chips in 5 points and is tied for third on the team with 4.2 rebounds per game, he posts shooting numbers that make the Georgetown backcourt players from the 80's look like Reggie Miller clones. For the year, Owens is hitting only 30% of his field goal attempts, 28.6% of his three point attempts, and—get this—only 12.5% of his free throw attempts [1 for 8]. On a positive note, he leads TCU in floor burns.
The only true center on the roster is the 6-9 257 pound Ibikunie. Despite that frame, Ibikunie is a mechanical big man who's numbers are down across the board this year [4.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 30.4% shooting, 37.5% free throws]. Ibikunie doesn't block shots, has poor lateral mobility, and isn't much of a defensive presence in the paint...a big factor in why TCU can't stop the opposition inside. Although Ibikunie has the tools, Dougherty hasn't been able to coax much out of this ‘project' during his three year career.
Rounding out the Horned Frog rotation are Art Pierce and Clarence Masters. Pierce is a 6-9 235 pound bull in a china shop, who is making the most out of the opportunity to play extended minutes [18.2 per game] for the first time in his career. The junior seems to be the only low post scorer in the lineup, posting a no frills 3.4 points per game on 50% shooting. Sadly, his field goal percentage leads the team by an insurmountable margin. He also is tied for third on the team with 4.2 caroms per game.
Masters is a 6-5 200 pound freshman from Cedar Hill, Texas who posted a career high in points against Texas Tech [10 points, on 4-8 shooting]. He provides depth to a frontcourt that sorely misses the injured Chinweze.
TCU will be giving up size and athleticism at every position. Saturday's contest should provide Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim with another "tune up" game to rectify his team's inconsistent play, and to dispense much needed playing time throughout his rotation.
Outlook: It's hard to imagine that TCU will provide much of a test for the Orange, but if you'd asked me for a prediction before the Manhattan game, I would have said the same thing about the seemingly overmatched Jaspers. The majority of Syracuse's problems seem to be the result of execution miscue. For example, the lengthy scoring droughts, losing focus on defense, giving up back door cuts, not finding shooters from zone sets (and hence giving up good looks to the opposition), and not boxing out on the glass are mostly correctable errors. The bad news is that Syracuse's opponents have been able to consistently exploit these breakdowns, the end result of which has been two early season losses and several unnecessarily close games that the Orange should have won handily. The good news is that execution flaws can be fixed with great experience and gameplay, particularly when it comes to the younger players.
Syracuse survived a MAJOR scare on Wednesday night. Will the overtime victory prove to be a turning point in the season? With the Big East conference schedule looming only a few short weeks away, it is imperative that the Orange use the few remaining interim games to round into developmental form, to eliminate execution flaws, and to show more collective killer instinct. We're seven games into the season, and I'm still not sure what to expect from SU on a game-to-game basis—which is a sad commentary on the team's consistency. It's time for the Orange to step it up and prove that they belong in the top 25, and to also show that they have what it takes to be competitive in Big East conference play.
A couple of things to pay attention to in tonight's contest:
Will Josh Wright continue to make his case for increased playing time?
Will Darryl Watkins and Terrance Roberts regain the form that made the duo such intimidating defensive post presences in last year's Big East Tourney, or will the Orange continue to give up easy buckets inside?
Will increased playing time lead to improved consistency for new starter Eric Devendorf?
It should be apparent early on whether the "lesson" that they received on Wednesday night against Manhattan sunk in. Expect the Orange to jump on TCU from the opening tap, and for Syracuse to cudgel the Horned Frogs into submission behind relentless defensive pressure and a more focused intensity than what we've seen from the team thus far. This is also a game where the subs should garner significant playing time. Syracuse 86 TCU 60.