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Making history is seldom a simple task.
After rallying from a double-digit deficit to defeat Arizona State 72-70 in the Round of 64 of the NCAA tournament, TCU is now back in the place it was a season ago.
Back in the Round of 32 facing one of college basketball’s blueblood with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line. Last year it was Arizona, this time it’ll be the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
There’s consistency and then there’s Gonzaga. Outside of the 2020 tournament that was canceled due to COVID, the Bulldogs have made the Big Dance every season under Mark Few.
Gonzaga has reached the second weekend of the tournament eight straight times dating back to 2015. Meanwhile TCU hasn’t made it that far since 1968. Of course the Horned Frogs were going to have to go through a juggernaut to accomplish another historic milestone.
Truthfully, TCU wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We welcome challenges. We like to step up in big games,” Mike Miles Jr. said after the win over Arizona State. “Every game from now on is a big game because we can go home after we lose.
“We’re going to stay ready, prepare for Gonzaga. We know they’re a great team, got one of the best players in the country with Drew Timme. Prepare for them the right way, come outwith the same intensity and try to get the win.”
Miles had a heroic 26-point performance against the Sun Devils as he dunked over defenders, made clutch shots and timely defensive stops. It’ll be the same effort required against Timme and the Bulldogs.
Speaking of Timme, the Richardson native is one of the most decorated players in the country. He’s a three-time All-American, won the Karl Marlone Award for best power forward in 2021 and is a two-time West Coast Conference Player of the Year.
Quite a resume huh?
Timme also represents the type of player that could give this version of TCU fits. A throwback post player that’s crafty with pump fakes and his footwork, Timme could exploit the Horned Frogs’ frontcourt that’s smaller now with the departure of Eddie Lampkin.
But while Gonzaga still has Timme, the Bulldogs don’t have the same defensive excellence they have in past years. The Bulldogs are currently 170th in defensive rating, the worst since 2008.
While the Bulldogs may have an area they feel comfortable, so should TCU. After the win over the Sun Devils, there was an eagerness in the locker room for the opportunity.
After last year’s crushing defeat to Arizona, the Horned Frogs wanted to run it back and get to this exact moment again.
“It’s exciting being on this stage, being present, we know last year we came up short,” Emanuel Miller said. “We could’ve made the Sweet Sixteen against Arizona, so this year we need to make sure for 40 minutes we play as hard as we did tonight.”
The effort TCU showed in battling back despite how much momentum Arizona State had built up speaks to the character of the team. It will likely be tested again against a Gonzaga team that is still among the best scoring offenses in the country.
The Bulldogs are No. 1 in offensive rating and have big, productive forwards like Julian Strawther (15.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and Anton Watson (11.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg) to contend with as well. The Bulldogs lead the country in made field goals, field goal percentage, scoring and are in the top-10 in 3-point %.
Formidable? Certainly. Unbeatable? Far from it.
Gonzaga faced two Big 12 opponents, Baylor and Texas, and lost both of those games. The Longhorns blew the Bulldogs out by 19 points while Baylor held Gonzaga under 70 points. Those games were early in the season sure, but the Bulldogs also lost multiple games in the WCC for the first time in seven seasons.
There are chinks in the armor ripe to be exploited if TCU can play up to its standards. Gonzaga won’t make that easy, but nothing at this point of the season is.
“Super excited, big games excite us,” Chuck O’Bannon said. “Gonzaga’s been one of the best teams in the country for decades, we’re excited to come out and show we can beat them and that we’re also one of the best teams in the country.”
TCU has offered plenty of glimpses of being one of the top teams nationally. Now the Horned Frogs have a chance to turn that glimpse into a historic milestone for the program and their coach Jamie Dixon.
These type of games are ultimately what he envisioned when he returned to his alma mater from Pittsburgh.
The Horned Frogs are 40 minutes away from writing a new chapter, setting a new standard for the program.
All that stands in the way is Gonzaga.