Following his team's season-ending exit in the second round of the 2004 Conference USA tournament, TCU coach Neil Dougherty made a prediction for the collection of reporters who showed up for his postgame news conference.
"We're going to come back faster and stronger," Dougherty proclaimed. "We're going to do whatever we have to do to play on the weekend of this tournament."
Despite enduring two forgettable seasons in his first head coaching gig, Dougherty is confident the Horned Frogs are finally ready to turn the corner in his third season. TCU lost only one starter -- scrappy guard Nucleus Smith -- and the school will have more depth than it has had in the coach's two previous seasons. The extra bodies should allow the Frogs to push the tempo to Dougherty's liking and, just maybe, flirt with some of the coach's bold hopes.
FRONTCOURTDougherty practically gushes with excitement when he talks about the summer progress of 6-foot-9 center Femi Ibikunle. "He was moving wherever he wanted to in the paint, and he manhandled some of our guys," Dougherty said.
The Frogs are crossing their fingers such muscle shows when the season tips off. While the Horned Frogs were capable of running with any team in the nation last season, they weren't so tough when games turned into shoving matches.
Ibikunle is the key to reversing the trend. After a freshman season marked by foul trouble and offensive moves that weren't so pretty, he will be counted on to resemble the paint presence and double-double threat the Frogs were counting on when he was signed in 2003.
He'll be joined in the paint by Chudi Chinweze. The 6-7 power forward was TCU's most productive inside scorer at 10.7 points per game. He also led the Frogs in rebounding last season. The only drawback with Chinweze is he plays below the rim and has trouble maneuvering against taller players.
Swingman Aaron Curtis provides the Horned Frogs with a shooting touch, but his 22.4 percent shooting beyond the arc was far below his capabilities last season. Art Pierce and Marcus Sloan should provide the majority of minutes off the bench but need to add bulk.
BACKCOURTCorey Santee and Marcus Shropshire emerged as one of the top guard tandems in C-USA last season. Santee wowed fans with his cross-over dribble and ability to get to the rack, while Shropshire made defenders pay if they gave him an inch to take a shot. The two accounted for 41.2 percent of TCU's scoring last season and were relied upon every time the Frogs needed a basket. "Corey turned into the point guard we've been wanting him to be since he got here, and Marcus certainly had nights where he didn't miss," Dougherty said. "But we've got to get those guys some help."
Incoming freshman Brent Hackett, a local product, is a pure scorer and could be in line to replace Smith in the starting lineup. He has the ability to penetrate or spot up and will give defenders reason to notice him.
Nile Murry, who sat out last season after transferring from Temple, should provide Santee some relief at the point, while freshman Neiman Owens could give TCU the energy off the bench that was missing last season. Blake Adams also figures into TCU's plans, but he spent his freshman season trying to locate his shot.
FINAL ANALYSISDougherty's dream of spending a weekend in March playing for a conference title may be premature, but there is no reason to dismiss the coach's chances of putting together his first winning season at the school.
The Horned Frogs are more than capable of running a team out of the gym with their depth and speed, and Santee is one of the top returning point guards in the league.
The Frogs must show they are tougher inside, and Ibikunle's development as a consistent force might be the biggest factor when the wins and losses are tallied.