EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – It’s not a difficult argument to make that J’Covan Brown had been the best player in the country for the first two weeks of the season.
He came into the game leading the nation in scoring at 29.3 ppg while adding 5.3 rpg, 7.7 apg and committing just seven turnovers. He was shooting 50.9% from the floor, 48.3% from three and getting to the free throw line eight times a game. Those are pretty impressive numbers from a kid who came into the season with a reputation for being little more than a chucker.
Little changed on Monday night when Brown took the court in the consolation game of the Legend’s Classic against NC State. For the first 31 minutes and change, he was absolutely terrific, scoring 17 points, handing out seven assists and turning the ball over just once.
“J’Covan Brown, he sliced us up like a side of fries,” NC State head coach Mark Gottfriend said after the game. “I’m sure we’ll play some great guards this year, but when the season is over, I think we’ll look back and he’ll be one of the better guards we play all season.”
With freshman point guard Myck Kabongo struggling for the second straight game, Brown’s play was all the more important. His ability to create not only for himself, but for his teammates as well — and, for that matter, the focus that the NC State defense showed him — was a huge reason that freshmen Jonathan Holmes (16 points, eight boards) and Sheldon McClellan (16 points) had big games.
With 8:25 left, Brown managed to make an even stronger case for his MVP candidacy, but it may not have been the best case to make.
Brown was called for a foul, his third of the half and fourth of the game, and was not happy about the call. As he walked past the official that made the call, he was whistled for a technical. That was his fifth foul. NC State was on a 5-0 spurt when Brown was tossed. They hit four free throws — two for the foul, two for the technical — to get within nine, and proceeded to score 19 of the next 21 points. In less than nine minutes of basketball, NC State turned a 65-47 deficit into a 75-67 lead.
The Longhorns simply couldn’t function offensively without Brown in the game. Myck Kabongo, for all the natural ability that he has, doesn’t yet understand how to run the point or have the confidence to take control of this team. Simply put, he looked nervous and hesitant in the final eight minutes of the game.
“Myck Kabongo’s still trying to figure it out,” Texas head coach Rick Barnes said. “We weren’t aggressive [without J’Covan].”
As an isolated incident, this is a problem, but its a manageable one. Tempers flare. Its happened to all of us in situations much-less tense than a high-level college basketball game. The problem with Brown is that there is a history. Throughout the high school and the AAU ranks, Brown’s temper and on-court attitude were notorious. There were the technicals and there were the ejections accompanying the typical entourage that comes with elite recruits. There were also academics issues, as it took him a year before he was able to qualify.
To his credit, Brown’s improved his temper. He’s gotten better. But blowups like this simply cannot happen when you’re being counted on as the veteran leader of a team.
“He’s come a long way. He really has,” Texas head coach Rick Barnes said after the game. “But there shouldn’t be anymore. He should have figured it out by now. He’s been around long enough.”
“When your older players do that, its tough. That’s where he has to grow up. I mean, he’s been in the program for three years. He’s in a different role now where these guys are looking for a lot from him and you just can’t do that. Its happened too much, and sooner or later he’s going to figure out that its going to keep him from being where he wants to be.”
There are a few differing accounts of what, exactly, happened that earned Brown the technical foul. According to him, he did curse as he walked past the ref. But the curse was directed at himself — he was upset that he had committed his fourth foul — and not aimed in the direction of the ref. It was just an unfortunate coincidence that the referee heard it.
But from what the folks sitting at press row had to say, Brown’s anger was intended for the referee, and he repeatedly said as much under his breath.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that J’Covan created the situation,” Barnes said.
That’s a problem. The “situation” that Brown created cost Texas a game. And this is the player that the Longhorns are counting on to be their leader? To be the guy that a talented group of freshmen look up to? Is that really the example you want the face of your program to be setting?
“I’m concerned for J’Covan,” Barnes said. “We’re going to be fine. We’ve got enough guys that work. The concerning part is for him. He’s a junior, he’s been here long enough and he ought to know that our team, if we can’t do it with him, we’ll do it without him. We don’t want to do that, everybody likes him and we know he’s trying and he’s worked harder than he’s ever worked in his life during the offseason. He’s worked hard in the summer and he’s worked hard in practice. But there’s more to it than that. There’s a mental side to it, there’s a team component side to it.”
From what Barnes had to say after the game, it sounds like Brown is getting better. It sounds like he’s trying, that he truly does want to be the guy that carries this team. Texas comes in without any expectations, meaning that any success the Longhorns have will be attributed to the play of Brown, particularly if he continues to perform at this rate.
But there is always going to be the chance that Brown will meltdown. Remember last season, when someone — he claims it wasn’t him — tweeted from his account about the lack of playing time he was getting. This is something that is always going to be in the back of his coaching staff’s mind. No matter how much he has his temper under control, who knows when the next time will be that he decides to pop off to a referee. What if it happens again in the Big 12 or NCAA Tournament? What if he reacts negatively to a call during a crucial bubble game? There is no guarantee that this Texas team will be in position to earn a bid when the season is over. Losing to Oregon State and North Carolina State — two more team that look headed for a nervous Selection Sunday — doesn’t help their profile.
More importantly for Brown, there were a myriad of NBA scouts in attendance that were there not only to see him play, but to see potential first-round picks Jeff Taylor, John Jenkins and Jared Cunningham in the nightcap. Its easier to overlook this kind of personality trait when you are picking a potential all-star. But for a guy that will have to battle his way into the second round, these kind of memories are not easy to forget.
“I’m more concerned for him than for our team,” Barnes said. “And again, he hasn’t been disruptive. What he did today, he made a bad mistake and it cost us.”