In a Numbers Make Me Horned first, we're going to turn away from college football and DUSHEE (although not team performance metrics) and try to put this most recent TCU basketball season in some perspective.
A running gag among some on this board, there has been a revisionist tendency by some to elevate the Billy Tubbs years as putting TCU among the elite programs in the country. It was, by some measures, the pinnacle of TCU basketball, challenged only by the brief run of success had by the Killer Frogs of the mid-1980s. But that pinnacle consisted of a single NCAA tournament bid, followed by an unceremonious 1st round exit at the hands of a 12-seed Florida State team, and two NIT bids.
The Frogs have made the NCAA tournament seven times (1952, 1953, 1959, 1968, 1971, 1987, and 1998), but four of those times were in the 1950's and 60's, when the NCAA tournament was arguably less prestigious than the NIT. The 1953, 1968 and 1971 teams were 16-9, 15-11 and 15-12, respectively.
This season was the Frogs' seventh NIT bid (1983, 1986, 1992, 1997, 1999, 2005, 2017).
Then there were all the years in between. Since 1950, the Frogs have had 19 seasons of single digit wins
So how special was the 2017 Frogs NIT run in the program's history? How does it compare to the other teams in the conference and in the state? Just how dismal has TCU basketball been otherwise?
To assess this, I went to College Basketball Reference and used their SRS metric (Simple Rating System), which uses a similar approach as DUSHEE, to plot team performance as a function of time. SRS, like DUSHEE, provides a relative performance compared to an average team (SRS = 0). College Basketball reference only has SRS calculated back to the 1949-1950 season.
Then, in addition to a marker for each team's performance in a given year, I plotted a 5-year moving average (MAV) for each team as an indicator of program strength during the time the senior class was at the school. Thus the MAV value in a given year, say 2000, is the average SRS score of the 1995-1996, 1996-1997,1997-1998, 1998-1999, and 1999-2000 seasons. By following the MAV curve, you can qualitatively assess when a program is ascendant, declining, or keeping performance level. Because I'm plotting the MAV in the last year of the 5-year envelope, it will often appear that the MAV is lagging the actual year-to-year performance.
This plot is the collective basketball history of most of the Texas D-1 schools since 1950, the bold purple line showing TCU's MAV. From 1955 until 1984, TCU was a below average D-1 program during that three decade period. For a 5-year stretch in the late 1970's, TCU and Rice needed binoculars to be able to see the rest of the state; and the rest of the state, particularly outside of Houston and UTEP, wasn't all that spectacular. That's just how bad TCU was during that stretch.
But the Frogs did become sharply ascendant during the end of that period, becoming solidly middle-of-the-pack in the state in the late 1980s (Jamie Dixon's tenure as a player) before a slow decline through the mid-1990s. Then Tubbs made the program sharply ascendant again, briefly challenging Tom Penders' UT teams as the best program in the state before another steady decline into another decade of mediocrity from 2005-2015.
But if you look at the tip of that peak during the Tubbs' era, and look for the little purple triangles that mark the year-to-year SRS scores for TCU around that peak, you can see that the peak is largely driven by one single year, the 1997-1998 NCAA team. Based on the SRS metric, that team had the highest score of any team in the state from 1985 forward, and behind only the 1968 and 1983 Houston teams since 1950. Also note that this past season's TCU team has the second highest SRS score of any TCU team, the only other TCU team to exceed a single season SRS over 15.
Houston and UTEP dominated the state from the mid-1960s until almost the mid-1990s, when Texas became the most consistently high-performing team in the conference, which it held until about 2012. SMU showed some early dominance in the 1950s and Baylor has emerged the top power in the state over the last few years.
This chart has a lot of the same data as the previous chart, but includes only the SWC teams for the years in which the teams were actually in the conference. So Tech arrives in 1961, Houston doesn't arrive until 1977, and Arkansas, which wasn't included in the previous figure, disappears after 1992, four years before everybody else disappears. Perhaps the most interesting thing to note here is how awful a basketball conference the SWC was during most of the 1960s and 1970s. From 1968-1973, there was not a single SWC program with an above-average SRS 5-year MAV. And even into the 1980s, only the addition of Houston and the ascendancy of Nolan Richardson's Hogs made the conference look halfway respectable. Arkansas left on a very high note; its 1990-1991 team had, by far, the highest SRS score (27.3) in the conference from 1950 on.
As we all remember, after the demise of the SWC, we joined the new and "improved" 16-team WAC, which shortly after we joined broke apart into the MWC and the Leftovers WAC. This hybrid chart shows all the teams that were in the WAC prior to the MWC split and then the teams that joined the WAC after the split; thus after 1998, this chart shows all the teams in both conferences. Thus TCU shows up twice, from 1996-1997 through 2000-2001 as a part of the WAC, and then from 2005-2006 through 2011-2012 as a part of the MWC. The "WAC Folds" line marks when the WAC ceased to exist as a football conference; I recognize that the WAC still has life as a basketball conference, but a man only has so much time to account for so many basketball teams. Note that during this time, while Utah, Tulsa, BYU, UNLV, UNM, and Fresno all vied for the best program in these conferences, the 1997-1998 TCU team has the highest single season SRS score. In fact, even if you take the WAC back to it's predecessor days (next chart), that TCU team had the highest SRS in conference history, dating back to 1950. Higher than Rick Majerus', Keith Van Horn-led, Final Four Utes, higher than Bill Self's best Tulsa team.
Conference USA/American Athletic:
This chart, like the WAC/MWC one, shows multiple related conferences on one chart; the teams that formed the original CUSA, the core of which formed the eventual American Athletic Conference, leaving behind a gutted and transformed CUSA. I didn't try to add all the new teams in the modern CUSA. This conference was always dominated by three teams, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Memphis. TCU was already on the way down from their 1998 peak and was never really a factor in this conference.
Our current home. TCU and Tech have battled for the cellar of the Big XII-II throughout our short time in the conference, but both teams appear to be sharply ascendant. This chart goes a long way to show just how good a basketball conference this is right now. Going back to the very first chart with all the Texas teams and the current TCU program is squarely middle-of-the-pack. In the Big XII-II, we are, by this metric, the worst team in the conference, and with Tech, the two worst programs by a significant margin.
The other interesting thing to note, going back historically, is that from 1950 to 1980 or so, while Kansas was (with Kansas State) the best program in the conference, it was only by nature of a fairly weak conference. Kansas really didn't become a true national power (by the SRS metric, at least) until it and (Billy Tubbs-led) Oklahoma began to rise in the late-1980s. Then, unlike Oklahoma, Kansas has stayed at an elite level over the better part of the last three decades. No one has really come close to Kansas' supremacy since OU's decline in the early-1990s.
The best ever Big XII team based on SRS? The 1987-1988 Oklahoma team coached by one Billy Tubbs. The SRS metric seems to really like Billy, Chuck ...
Completing TCU's basketball journey to date, let's take a look at some of the other major conferences' histories.