9:40 PM EST, TBS – Line: Gonzaga -4.5, Over/Under: 156.5
After yet another thrilling night of college hoops, the 2023 NCAA Men’s Tournament marches on as the Second Round concludes with the sixth-seeded TCU Horned Frogs facing off with the third-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs with the final spot in the Sweet Sixteen on the line from Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado. Leveling up. That is what TCU (22-12, 9-9 in Big XII) had in mind when they hired (Head Coach) Jamie Dixon seven years ago, as the school attempted to develop their long dormant basketball program in the same vein that they did its counterpart on the gridiron. And who better than Dixon to accomplish such as task? The 57-year-old spent his collegiate days in Fort Worth and was an All-Conference Point Guard as a Senior, leading the Horned Frogs to the 1987 NCAA Tournament. After bouncing around the country as an assistant, Dixon settled in at Pittsburgh, where he served four years under Ben Howland before being promoted to the full-time gig in 2003, which began a 13-year run in which he led the Panthers to eleven big dances, a pair of Big East titles (back when the conference was the best in the country), two Sweet Sixteens and a trip to the Elite Eight back in 2009. Needless to say, he had his work cut out for him, as his alma mater had enjoyed just five winning seasons since the turn of the century without a single tourney appearance to boot, and since his arrival the Frogs have won twenty or more games on five occasions and are participating in their third NCAA Tournament, all the while competing in what is arguably the toughest league in the country, the Big XII. So, how has he done it, you ask? Well, he’s recruited well, with three RCSI Top-100 recruits, while also hitting the Transfer Portal hard, acquiring the services of (Seniors) Damion Baugh and Emanuel Miller from Memphis and Texas A&M two years ago, along with (Sophomore Forward) JaKobe Coles by way of Butler. They’ve also developed quite the identity for themselves as a hard-nosed team that is aggressive in all facets of the game; TCU ranks eleventh in two points field goals (22.0) and fourteenth in attempts (42.6), while moving the basketball with fluidity in dishing out 16.1 assists (19th Overall), while creating a wealth of second-chance opportunities via their work on the offensive glass, where they log 11.5 offensive rebounds per game (61st Overall). Their aggressiveness pays off with frequent trips to the charity stripe, where they attempt 20.7 free-throws on average (54th Overall), netting 14.6 per contest (66th Overall). Defensively, few schools are better at defending the money ball, yielding just 30.8% shooting from downtown (32nd Overall), while also applying pressure on the perimeter and at the rim with 8.2 steals (42nd Overall) and 4.7 blocks respectively (29th Overall). When we last saw TCU, they rallied back to overcome (11 Seed) Arizona State in a thrilling 72-70 victory on Friday night, marking their only their second NCAA Tournament victory since 1987. Indeed, the Horned Frogs earned this win, as they trailed the Sun Devils by as many as eleven points midway through the second half. Dixon’s troops overcame a dreadful shooting performance in which they netted just 35.5% of their attempts from the field, including only 14-of-39 from within the arc (35.9%). So, how in the hell did the manage to come back, you ask? Well, they put in the dirty work that pays off so often this time of year; the Frogs slowed the game by getting to the charity stripe, where they knocked down 20-of-27 free-throws (74.1%), leading to a +8 advantage, while also forcing eleven turnovers and putting work on the offensive glass (12), which created ten more field goal attempts to close the divide between the two sides. The aforementioned Baugh filled up the stat sheet with eleven points, six rebounds, and eight assists, while (Fellow Senior) Chuck O’Bannon and Coles combined for twenty-six points and seven offensive rebounds. However, the player of the game was (Junior Guard) Mike Miles (pictured above), who erupted for twenty-six points, including the go-ahead score despite tweaking his knee just before halftime. The All-Big XII Second Teamer was relentless in getting to the rim, where he was rewarded with a wealth of opportunities at the stripe, calmly netting a career-high 12-of-14 singles (85.7%). From a betting perspective, TCU is a middling 16-17-1 against the spread overall this season, while really struggling of late in that regard, cover the line in just three of their last ten games regardless of the venue. The road hasn’t been very kind to them either, as the Horned Frogs are 3-7 against the spread in their last ten trips away from Fort Worth, while they have managed a slightly better mark when branded as an underdog by the oddsmakers, covering four of their last ten outings when receiving points. Furthermore, Dixon’s charges have failed to cover the number in SIX consecutive affairs following a straight-up victory, which of course is the case tonight. A victory over the Bulldogs would be a landmark for a program who hasn’t advanced to the second weekend of the big dance since 1968 when they were a member of the old Southwest Conference. In the fifty-five seasons since then, the Frogs have participated in just SIX NCAA Tournaments, progressing past the first round only three occasions.
Meanwhile, their opponent tonight knows all about leveling up, for more so than any other program in the country, Gonzaga (29-5, 14-2 in West Coast) wrote the book on it. Sure, it may sound ridiculous now, but once upon a time the Bulldogs were this sleepy, small school from the Pacific Northwest without a reputation on the hardwood to be found, with their most notable contribution to the sport being the university that birthed (Hall of Famer) John Stockton. Hell, the Zags didn’t receive a single invite to the big dance from the advent of the hoops program in 1943 to 1995, when they made their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. From there, Dan Monson really got the ball rolling four years later with a magical run all the way to the Elite Eight, which served as the catalyst for (Head Coach) Mark Few, who succeeded his mentor following his abrupt exit to Minnesota, beginning what for all intents and purposes has become a dynasty in Spokane; in twenty-four years, the 60-year-old has amassed a stellar .837 win percentage, with TWENTY-TWO WCC Regular Season Titles and NINETEEN Conference Tournament Titles to his credit, while appearing in the big dance every year and advancing to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond on eleven occasions, including each of the last seven tourneys, highlighted by trips to the National Championship Game and 2017 and 2021. Furthermore, he has done a tremendous job of recruiting and developing talent, with twenty-five players drafted to the NBA since 2000, including ten of them in last six years alone. This current incarnation of the Zags has been all about Offense, leading the nation at 87.4 points per game, at 52.9% shooting from the field and 59.6% shooting from within the arc, both of which also rank first in the country. They have also knocked down a healthy 38.9% of their triples (8th Overall), while dishing out 16.5 assists per game (13th Overall), while getting to the free-throw line just as frequently as their counterpart tonight (20.7 attempts), which ranks fifty-sixth in the nation. Senior leadership is another major factor here, with three upperclassmen who participated in that aforementioned National Final appearance comprising the rotation, including (Forwards) Drew Timme and Anton Watson. The former has enjoyed quite the sendoff in Spokane, winning WCC Player of the Year honors and posting averages of 20.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.0 block, all of which are career-highs for the Texas native. When we last saw Gonzaga, they bested (14 Seed) Grand Canyon in a relatively comfortable 82-70 affair on Friday night. In just their second-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the Antelopes performed well offensively, shooting 43.1% from the field, including 9-of-24 from beyond the arc (37.5%), with eleven assists in comparison to committing just six turnovers. However, while that showing may have been enough to defeat a lower-ranked opponent, it was far from enough to close the gap with the Bulldogs, who really made it look easy on the offensive end of the hardwood; Few’s kids shot a blistering 53.6% from the floor, including 23-of-41 from within the arc (56.1%) and 7-of-15 beyond it (46.7%), while really making a difference at the charity stripe where they netted 15-of-19 free-throws, leading to a +10 advantage in the affair. With that said, they only dished out one more assist (13) than they had turnovers (12), which we’re sure that Few will want to clean up, but let’s be honest that these early matchups provide a training ground of sorts for powerhouses such as the Zags to fine-tune themselves moving forward. The aforementioned Timme and (Junior Guard) Julian Strawther (pictured above) combined for forty-nine points on 17-of-28 shooting from the field (60.7%) and 12-of-15 from the free-throw line (80.0%), along with sixteen rebounds, four assists, and five blocks. Watson added another fourteen points and a game-high eleven boards, combining with Strawther for 5-of-9 shooting from three-point land (55.5%). From a betting perspective, Gonzaga is just 3-19-1 against the spread overall this season, while covering the number in six of their last ten outings regardless of the venue. The Bulldogs have flipped that trend on the road of late, posting a 4-6 record against the spread over their past ten trips away from Spokane, while logging six covers in their last ten games as a favorite. Few’s charges have also proven to be fairly resilient lately in terms of covering the spread, with five straight wins of that fare when following an ATS loss. With that said, their recent form from this angle in the NCAA Tournament has left a lot to be desired, for the ‘Dogs have failed to cover each of their last six such outings, coincidentally all of which have been as favorites, which is once again the case tonight. A victory over the Frogs will propel the Zags to familiar territory, as they have advanced to the second weekend of the tourney in seven of the past eight, with the only absence being 2020 in which the big dance was canceled altogether due to the COVID-19 pandemic.