From undefeated to open tryouts: How TCU rebuilt its roster after a rapid unraveling

The Horned Frogs were undefeated at the start of 2024. Now they're adding walk-ons just to field a team. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
The Horned Frogs were undefeated at the start of 2024. Now they're adding walk-ons just to field a team. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

It was an unconventional game on the schedule for TCU women's basketball head coach Mark Campbell to find difficulty describing how much it meant to his team. Three weeks ago they were undefeated, readying for a battle of supremacy atop the Big 12 with a ranked game against undefeated Baylor.

Now a six-point win against Central Florida, still winless in its first Big 12 conference schedule, was a celebratory affair.

“This thing unfolded rapidly,” Campbell told reporters after the 66-60 win at Ed and Rae Schollmaier Arena. “It wasn’t a slow progression of this.”

TCU (15-4, 2-6) took the court on Tuesday for the first time since canceling its two Big 12 games last week due to injuries within the program and holding two open tryouts to fill out the roster. They added four walk-ons to keep alive a season that at one point saw them ranked No. 23 in the country.

It sounds like the opening acts of a Disney Channel original movie. But this is the far longer editor’s cut where, as Campbell said, “you just don’t skip steps.”

Their season was filled with promise less than a month ago. After finishing last season 8-23, Campbell took over as coach after two years at Sacramento State and seven as an assistant at Oregon during Sabrina Ionescu’s era. He added big-name transfers who led the undefeated record. Their opponents’ NET ranking wasn’t dazzling, but neither was LSU’s in 2023 and the Tigers went on to become national champions.

TCU’s name was next to the likes of South Carolina, UCLA, Baylor and Texas to start the season. It re-entered the Associated Press poll in Week 7 for the first time since 2020. National eyes keyed in on the Big 12, where the belated holiday gift of undefeated teams squaring off against each other early in the schedule sat waiting.

Adversity hit hard in the new year.

“We went from none to we got our fair share,” Campbell said.

Sedona Prince, the 6-foot-7 transfer from Oregon, “shattered” her ring finger six seconds into the 71-50 loss against Baylor, she said in a TikTok video. She said she’ll be out seven weeks and is hopeful to return before the end of the season.

Three more losses followed against Oklahoma State, Texas and Houston. Ahead of Kansas State’s visit to Fort Worth, multiple injuries impacted the program. Point guard Jaden Owens, a graduate student transfer from Baylor, announced she tore her ACL and meniscus, and forward DaiJa Turner injured her ankle. Both are out for the season. Guard Madison Conner, a transfer from Arizona, is working through a knee injury.

Prince led the Big 12 in scoring, blocks and was second in rebounding. Owens was the conference assists leader. Conner ranked second in 3-point shooting and third in scoring. All three were starters.

Prince said three other players are dealing with injuries or health issues and another left for a family issue in December. Down to six healthy scholarship players, two of whom were on minute restrictions coming off injuries, the program decided it could not play the game against Kansas State even though the Wildcats were already in town.

The Big 12 does not have a minimum roster threshold, so with no “extraordinary circumstances,” TCU took conference forfeits instead of rescheduling against Kansas State and Iowa State. UConn was able to reschedule a game last year because it fell below the seven-player threshold required by the Big East.

To keep the season afloat, TCU held open tryouts last week with more than 40 students participating.

“These young ladies that showed up poured their heart and souls into that tryout,” Campbell said. “And it’s not like they’re in basketball shape. It’s not like they've been practicing. They just came from class and put on their sneakers. There was one young lady I remember, she said she got her hoop shoes overnight delivered.”

Sarah Sylvester, a 6-3 middle blocker on TCU’s volleyball team, received “two thumbs up” from head coach Jason Williams to join. She was the only walk-on to play Tuesday night in one minute of action and is the first dual student-athlete from TCU in Big 12 history.

“TCU is a special place and you’re getting to see it,” Campbell said. “As adversity hit, everybody rallied.”

TCU's Sydney Harris (25) and Sarah Sylvester (4) celebrate a stop against Central Florida on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
TCU's Sydney Harris (25) and Sarah Sylvester (4) celebrate a stop against Central Florida on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Freshman guard Piper Davis won the Idaho 5A state championship playing for Timberline in 2022. Her father, Jarrod Davis, played for Gonzaga from 1989-1992. Freshman guard Ella Hamlin scored more than 1,500 points at Granbury High School in Texas and earned the district Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2022 and 2023. Sophomore guard Mekhayia Moore earned a state championship MVP nod for leading Brownsboro High School to its first Texas UIL girls state championship as a senior.

A movie director might cut to the first practice. Cue the opening tip. Leave out the details. Real life isn’t that easy.

“There’s an onboarding process. It’s not a simple you can go get some walk-ons,” Campbell said. “There’s many layers to it and you can’t just speed the process of it.”

The walk-ons had to go through NCAA compliance eligibility and medical clearances. Then there’s the academic side of “student-athlete.”

“They didn’t build their class schedule around our practice when they set it,” Campbell said. “When you first added them there wasn’t a kid that could come to practice. They had class. There’s just this massive checklist to get them to where they can show up to practice with you.”

The four went through an additional one-hour shootaround ahead of the regularly scheduled one on Tuesday. They’re learning the team’s shooting drills and plays halfway into the season while juggling school work and the sudden thrust into Division I athlete life.

It’s a big leap. Their first game was played in front of former Oregon star Satou Sabally, a WNBA MVP candidate playing for the Dallas Wings. Their assistant coach is Ruthy Hebard, another WNBA Draft pick who played for Campbell at Oregon.

The coaching staff intended to rely on a pick-and-roll game with Owens and Prince, one of the tallest centers in Division I. Without those two, they’ve stayed up late into the night to instill a 5-out motion offense that Campbell said he’s never coached prior. Injured players are coaching up their counterparts from the bench while they discover each other’s tendencies and build chemistry. The reserves went out and put up the highest first quarter they’ve had all year.

UCF, which played in the AAC last year, was the best opening act the Horned Frogs could have dreamed. It will only become more difficult. TCU travels to play Texas Tech (14-6, 3-4) on Saturday — the first road trip for the walk-ons. A stretch against Oklahoma (11-6, 5-1), West Virginia (16-2, 5-2) and Texas (18-2, 5-2) begins in two weeks.

It was a special and difficult two weeks for Campbell and TCU to be back on the court in a competitive game. Unlike the feel-good movies, the team hasn’t skipped steps this whole year and they don’t intend to start now. They’ll go through preparations, show up, do their jobs.

Maybe win some more games.

“In some ways you look back on your career of the blessing of how fragile being healthy is,” Campbell said. “I’ve got to be a part of some really good teams and those teams stayed healthy. It just shows how quickly a season can turn.”