UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas -- It was a few decades ago that SMU coach Matt Doherty and TCU coach Jim Christian grew up in the same area of New York, playing at opposing Catholic high schools in Long Island.
"He was probably four years older than I was, but everyone knew who he was," Christian said about Doherty, who was a senior at Holy Trinity when Christian was busy trying to make the St. Dominic varsity team coached by Ralph Willard. "He was an All-America and a great player."
Doherty remembers seeing Christian several times when the two were young basketball players. Doherty, of course, went on to play at North Carolina with Michael Jordan and James Worthy, learning from Dean Smith. Christian played for Rick Pitino for two years at Boston University and two more under Tom Penders at Rhode Island.
On Wednesday, the two coaches were on opposing benches at Moody Coliseum in Dallas. But their situations are pretty similar: Both programs want to push their way into being conference contenders.
And both of them have had difficulty getting their teams to finish games. TCU found a way Wednesday, winning 60-53.
The Frogs blew an eight-point lead with about three minutes left against Arizona State earlier this season. And they had a 10-point lead with less than six minutes remaining Wednesday only to see SMU (2-3) score numerous points in the paint and get aggressive on defense to close to within one point and have possession of the ball with 43 seconds left. But the Mustangs missed two free throws and TCU (4-3) made two to take a 3-point lead.
"We've played eight games and have been in that situation five times," Christian said. "I hadn't seen that look from our team this year. We came out of the huddle in that situation determined to get a stop."
Ronnie Moss blocked an SMU shot, and TCU was fouled and made free throws to essentially ice the game.
"I think our team is learning, and I'm proud about that. This team found a way to finish it."
Doherty said he was encouraged by his team's play, unlike his feeling after slipping past Huston-Tillotson last week.
"I think we did a lot of good things," Doherty said. "There are things we can fix. I don't think we'll go 0-for-13 from the 3-point line every game. We've got something here to build on."
Besides the tough going from behind the 3-point stripe, SMU guard Paul McCoy, who was averaging 14 points, was held scoreless.
So Doherty will go back and continue the learning process. His goal for this season remains straightforward: have more wins than losses. Doherty likes to compare his job to that of a CEO at a major corporation that needs a turnaround. He has put together a three- to five-year plan and is in the fourth year of that now.
"To put your footprint, it takes that long," Doherty said. "Having a winning season would be right on the money with our plan. I think we're on the cusp of having a winning season."
Doherty went 14-17 in his first season. But he brought in seven freshmen and basically started over after that. The Mustangs went 10-20 his second year and 9-21 last season. Since Doherty's arrival on The Hilltop, SMU has won a total of 10 conference games.
"When you take over a job, sometimes you don't realize how beat up it is until you get there," said Doherty, who likened the program to a struggling stock at the time he was hired. "There were deep scars here that are starting to heal with the success of the football program, and hopefully people see us turning the corner."
Doherty has scheduled a mix of opponents, including some bigger-conference teams at home -- such as South Florida and Texas A&M -- in an effort to strengthen his team and allow his players to learn valuable lessons. They also are traveling to Hawaii as part of a tournament surrounding the Hawaii Bowl, which the football team is competing in on Dec. 24.
Christian is facing similar hurdles. He came to Fort Worth before last season from Kent State, where he made trips to the NCAA tournament an annual rite, and started to implement his basketball culture and system. The Frogs went 14-17 and won five conference games. But Christian saw slow improvement and has already seen his team develop better chemistry going into this season.
"We can move a little quicker this year because there have been some guys in the program and they've gone through it," Christian said. "You build each year."
Christian, like Doherty, has tried to strike a balance between scheduling challenging games and allowing his team to get some wins that build confidence. Christian's squad has already played road games at Arizona State (a three-point loss) and Nebraska (13-point defeat). The Frogs get Texas Tech at home and Houston on the road in December.
"I wouldn't have come here if I didn't think we could be in position to compete for the championship at some point," Christian said. "Are we there today? I don't know. I think a lot is going to happen between now and conference games. We're still learning. It's a work in progress."
Both coaches hope to see more progress this season.
Richard Durrett covers college basketball for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.