(courtesy Kyan Brown)

Through The Fire: North Dakota State advances to NCAA tournament after coach loses house to fire

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Suzanne Brown has a back-up plan.

She knows that there is a window in her bedroom, one right above the crate where the family’s french bulldog Penny had been sleeping. She’s on the first floor of the rambler the Browns bought six months ago. If she can’t army crawl her way under the thick, black smoke that has taken up residence in her home, or if the fire that she hears burning away in the kitchen grows too big, she has an escape route. She’s wearing boots; it is, after all, a cold February night in North Dakota. If it comes to it, she’ll just kick out the window.

Because her two daughters are standing in the driveway.

She’s not going to let this be the last time they see their mom.

But she knows what the fire is going to do. She knew it as soon as she unloaded a fire extinguisher on the flames, watching a spot next to the stove go out as the flames kept climbing. Up past the backsplash, through the cabinets, to the ceiling. This will change everything. Even if the firefighters make it in time to save the house, everything in it is a lost cause. Their clothes, their beds, their blankets, the flat-screen TVs they had just hung in their newly-finished basement.

All ruined.

Suzanne Brown knows this is going to turn her family’s life upside-down, and she’ll be damned if she is going to let that happen while her kids mourn Penny.

So off she goes, into her burning home, under the smoke and past the burning insulation falling from the ceiling, to get to that crate and free that yappy little pup from her tomb.


Khloe Brown with pup Penny (courtesy Kyan Brown)

No one is quite sure how the fire started.

What they do know is that it began in the kitchen; at the stove, to be exact. At around 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 21st, Suzanne was cooking dinner for the family when the power in the neighborhood went out. Kyan Brown, Suzanne’s husband and an assistant coach on the North Dakota State men’s basketball team, had just arrived back in Fargo after two days on the road recruiting. He went straight to his practice, which ended at 6 p.m., and then was en route to watch his 12-year old son Caleb’s practice. Suzanne met him there after they lost power, and she stayed until she got the call that the power was back on in the neighborhood.

So she headed home with their daughters, Khloe and Sophie.

Not 15 minutes later, Kyan got the call.

“She was hysterical,” he said. “I couldn’t make out if she was laughing or crying. I couldn’t hear words.” It reminded him, he said, of the scene from Anchorman when Ron Burgundy was in the phone booth, trapped in a glass case of emotion. He left the gym, where he heard the words that changed everything: “The house is burning to the ground.”

Kyan lined up a ride home for his son and sped home, passing people on two-lane roads, hoping that he’d pull into his driveway and find out Suzanne was exaggerating.

“I got eight or nine blocks away and I could smell the smoke,” he said. “Holy sh-t, that’s not good.”

Their street was completely blocked by fire engines. Kyan stopped, left his car in the middle of the road and took off running. What he found when he got to his driveway was that the fire department had done their job. They put the fire out before it spread beyond the kitchen. They put it out before it compromised the integrity of the structure.

(courtesy Kyan Brown)

The house will survive.

But nothing inside the house did. None of their furniture. None of the drywall. They will hopefully be able to salvage some of the windows and some of their clothes, but not much more than that. The morning after the fire, when the family walked into the house with their insurance agent to assess the damage, the first thing she said was, “Your wife really ran back in here?” Soot stained the top three feet of sheetrock for the entirety of the main floor of the house. The insulation covering kitchen and living room made it look like the house had received a dusting of snow overnight.

Smokey (courtesy Kyan Brown)

The repairs — which, thankfully, will be covered by insurance — are not going to be cheap, they’re not going to be quick and they’re not going to be easy.

The working theory is that the fire started with the stove, that it either malfunctioned when the power came back on or that it was not properly turned off when the house lost power, but the truth is that doesn’t really matter to the Brown family.

What matters is no one got hurt.

What matters is that all seven members of the family made it out OK.

When Suzanne first arrived at the house that night, she opened the door and the family’s massive and aptly-named mastiff Smokey came sprinting out of the house, but unbeknownst to her, when she went in to save Penny, Smokey, ever the protector, followed her in. He eventually made his way into the basement, where he was taken out in his crate by the firefighters.

It wasn’t until that moment that Suzanne knew her family was intact, that whatever hardships they had in front of them they would endure together.

“We’re OK,” Khloe, who is wise beyond her 14 years, said, consoling her mom. “We’re all going to be OK. We have everything we need right here.”


(courtesy Kyan Brown)

This isn’t a story about a team rallying around a member of the program. It’s not a story about someone overcoming adversity to achieve their dreams.

This is about a community coming together to take care of one of their own. It is a story about a family trying to find a way back to normalcy when their existence is anything but.

The life of a college basketball coach is never going to be simple. For six months out of the year, they see their co-workers more than their families, a dynamic that is exacerbated once February and March come around. There are games to scout, players to recruit, practices to plan, flights to catch.

Put another way, scrambling to keep a household with three kids that have jam-packed schedules running smoothly is the norm for Suzanne.

“The hardest part,” she said, “was feeling displaced. At the end of all the crazy, we always have home. That’s our safe place. The hardest part is knowing that at the end of the day, you’re not going home. You’re going to sit in a hotel.”

It’s more than just the comfort of your own couch or the privacy of your own living room.

It’s impossible to fathom just how much stuff you need to keep life running smoothly on a day-to-day basis, and Suzanne was facing the impossible task of trying to replace all of that without a home. She didn’t want her kids to fall behind in class so they were back in school the Monday after the fire, but they needed clothes — shirts, pants, underwear, socks — to wear.

Take Khloe, for example. Her safe space is on the volleyball court. That’s where things are familiar. That’s where she can find normalcy, by going to practice during the week and traveling to games on the weekend. She wasn’t going to stop playing volleyball, but her gym bag with all of her volleyball gear — from a ball and shoes and a jersey to things as simple athletic socks, spandex and sports bras — was sitting on the kitchen table just feet from the fire. Hell, she needed a new gym bag to keep it all in.

Even Kyan needed help. The Bison played that Saturday, and he needed a suit. At 6-foot-8, 260 pounds, he can’t exactly buy off the rack.

“You don’t think about all the things you need,” Suzanne said, “until you don’t have them.”

Head coach Dave Richman helped him out with that. He made a call to Halberstadt’s in Fargo and got Kyan lined up for a suit the next day. The NDSU women’s volleyball program hooked Khloe up with the gear she needed. Caleb’s teammates made sure he had what he needed and always had a ride to and from games. A GoFundMe for the family has raised nearly $10,000 to date. When Suzanne was moving into the house this week, Richman’s wife loaded up their minivan with two loads of stuff — all the things that you need to make a house a home. Cleaning supplies, toilet paper, all the way down to the simplest things in life, like a bottle of ketchup for the fridge.

“My wife, the coaches’ wives, they’ve been doing laundry and soaking clothes, going over and over and over again, to try and get the smoke out of them,” Richman said.

Even the players did their part to help out. Junior forward Deng Geu asked Kyan what his favorite restaurant is to take someone on a date, and then he and junior guard Chris Quayle surprised Kyan and Suzanne with a gift card for dinner, a night out on the guys.

For Kyan, the impact and amount of what they lost didn’t hit him until someone offered to help him move.

“There’s nothing to move,” he said.

There were some things that the family was able to salvage. Sophie’s old stuffed animals aren’t exactly in mint condition, but Suzanne was able to keep them. A blanket she had made out of all of Caleb’s old t-shirts survived, although it may not be clean enough to be anything other than a memento that’s kept out of sight. Kyan’s father passed away six years ago and the dresser he passed down survived, although it’s no longer functional.

The saying goes ‘things can be replaced, people can’t.’

But that’s not entirely accurate.

A hard drive can be replaced.

The thousands of pictures on that hard drive that documented college sweethearts becoming parents three times over?

Those can’t.


(Loren Townsley/Argus Leader via AP)

March Madness has come to take on an entirely new meaning for the Brown family this year.

They spent nearly three weeks living out of a hotel room. Mom, dad, three kids and two dogs tasked with navigating the unrelenting schedule of a sports family without any semblance of personal space.

But that, mercifully, came to an end this week, as the Browns were finally able to move into their rental home on Tuesday. They will be there for the foreseeable future, and while it isn’t their home, it is a home.

That’s a start.

Suzanne did most of the heavy-lifting herself; Tuesday night just so happened to be the night of the Summit League tournament title game. NDSU, the No. 4 seed, knocked off Omaha to earn the program’s second trip to the NCAA tournament under Richman.

It was the first time in 20 years in college basketball as a player and a coach that Kyan earned a trip to the NCAA tournament.

“I had been in this game once as a player and three times before as a coach,” he said. “Never broken through. She’s been with me the whole time.”

She was not with him on Tuesday night, and it wasn’t just because of the move. “I had already taken some days off work,” Suzanne said. “I wanted to save the rest of my days off for the NCAA tournament. I just had a feeling we were going to win this.”

When the final buzzer sounded, as everyone’s family started making their way down to the court, deputy athletic director Todd Phelps noticed that Kyan was the only guy that wasn’t hugging his wife, or his kids, or his mom.

So Phelps did the only thing he could do.

He FaceTimed Suzanne.

“She was crying,” Kyan said. “I was crying.”

“It’s something I’ll never forget.”

Pac-12 loosens intra-conference transfer rule

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The Pac-12 approved a measure Monday that will lighten restrictions on players that want to transfer to schools within the conference.

Players who now make an intra-conference transfer will no longer be subject to an immediate loss of a season of eligibility, the conference announced.

“This rule change removes one of the last remaining penalties associated with transferring between Conference schools,” the league said in a press release, “and is designed to provide student-athletes with a similar experience to any other student who decides to transfer.”

The league also has passed rules to beef up its non-conference schedule as programs will be required to a non-conference five-year trailing average of opponents’ NET ranking must be 175 or less, no participation in road buy games, no regular season games against non-Division I opponents and no road games versus a non-conference opponent with a five-year trailing average of 200 NET. Those requirements, along with the move to a 20-game conference schedule, come in response to continued struggles by the league in basketball, with last season seeing the league flirt with being a one-bid NCAA tournament conference. Ultimately, its league champion, Washington, received a No. 9 seed with Oregon getting a 12 and Arizona State an 11 and a First Four invitation.

 

Kenny Wooten writes he won’t return to Oregon

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Kenny Wooten took to Instagram on Monday to discuss his future.

“I know I’ve waited a very long time to answer this question,” Wooten wrote in response to a question from a fan, “but I will not be coming back for year 3.”

Presumably that means that Wooten means to continue to pursue a professional career after declaring for the NBA draft after his sophomore season. He competed at the G-Leage Elite minicamp last week in Chicago along with a host of other draft hopefuls.

The 6-foot-9 California native averaged 6.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game while shooting 58.9 percent from the field. At the moment, it’s likely that Wooten would have to pursue a path to the NBA that includes the G-League.

Wooten makes it a loss of seven players from last year’s Sweet 16 squad for coach Dana Altman, who also saw Bol Bol and Louis King go to the draft. Payton Pritchard Jr., who averaged nearly 13 points per game as a junior, has also declared, but has not indicated if he plans to stay in or return to school.

Five-star forward Trendon Watford commits to LSU

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Whatever issues have dogged LSU coach Will Wade over the last few months, they aren’t enough to keep him from landing another five-star recruit.

Trendon Watford, a top-25 forward in 2019, committed to Wade and the Tigers in an Monday afternoon announcement.

“It’s the trust,” he said of his pick of the Tigers, according to AL.com, “the trust I have with those coaches and them helping me reach my potential.”

Watford said he had been leaning towards heading to Baton Rouge, but retreated from that stance when Wade was suspended by LSU after reports surfaced about federal wiretaps featuring Wade discussing making a “strong-ass offer” for a recruit. Former Arizona assistant Book Richardson was also on wiretap discussing Wade, recruit Naz Reid and $300,000. Ultimately, though, LSU has stood by him as it reinstated him from suspension.

“When all that was going on it was definitely a pause in my recruitment,” Watford told 247Sports. “Before that I was going to commit to LSU during the McDonald’s game and that happened so we postponed. He still contacted me throughout that time and would tell me what was up. When he got reinstated they got pushed back to the top.”

Ultimately, the Tigers are landing one of the top players that were left on the board this spring, a 6-foot-9 forward that was also considering Alabama, Memphis and Indiana, where his brother Christian played. He joins James Bishop, a top-150 guard from Maryland, and junior college transfer guard Charles Manning in Wade’s 2019 class. It would also seem there is little immediate concern, at least by Watford, that the NCAA might soon find wrongdoing that was suggested by the evidence and testimony to come out the federal investigation into college hoops.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with what Nassir Little said about North Carolina at the combine

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One of the storylines that has popped up since the NBA draft combine came to an end last week has centered around a couple of things that potential top ten pick and former North Carolina Tar Heel Nassir Little said.

Before we dive into it, here is what the actual quote was, courtesy of our own Scott Phillips:

“Hesitancy. Not being sure of what I wanted to do at UNC,” Little said when he was asked why he thinks he struggled more in college than he did in the high school ranks. “The coaching staff didn’t really understand exactly what my role was early on, especially in the offense, (which) created a lot of hesitancy which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”

Then we he was asked to elaborate on whether or not being unsure of his role contributed to his hesitancy, Little said, “Just kind of being unsure, playing out of position, created some confusion on the court which caused me to be hesitant.”

Little has taken some criticism for this, and, to be frank, this can be read as something of a criticism of the coaching staff. Without context, one can infer that Little is passing the buck and pinning the blame for his struggles on his coaches.

But the context here matters, and it changes the tone of what he is trying to say.

Let me start with this: Little says that he would not jump straight from high school to the NBA even if he had the chance to do it all over again.

“It was a struggle statistically,” he said, “but on the court I developed, my body developed and became more mature in the weight room there, learning about the game, playing against actual defense – in high school there is no help, you beat your guy, you’re going to get a dunk. Going to college exposes you to what’s helpful for the NBA.”

That doesn’t sound like someone who is bitter that an inability to crack the starting lineup at North Carolina cost him some draft spots.

To me, it sounds like a guy who realized that he didn’t know what he didn’t know before he arrived in Chapel Hill.

The thing about Little is that he was always just a weird fit for North Carolina’s system and the way that Roy Williams wants to play.

In this day and age, basketball is becoming more and more about versatility and your ability to play multiple positions. Think about Giannis Antetokounmpo bringing the ball up the floor for the Bucks or the job that Draymond Green does for Golden State. Little is such an attractive prospect because he has the size, strength and athleticism to be able to guard multiple different positions — which you cannot teach — while having the upside of still needing to learn how to do pretty much everything better offensively.

North Carolina’s offense is not one that preaches versatility. The positions are quite rigid. Williams wants two bigs on the floor that are true bigs. He wants two wings on the floor that are going to be able to get out in transition and make threes on the wing. He wants a point guard that can lead the break. Where Little’s versatility makes him an intriguing prospect at the highest level, he’s relegated to being something of a tweener for a coach that is just two years removed from his third national title.

So when Little says “the coaching staff didn’t really understand exactly what my role was,” he’s not blaming them.

He’s just speaking the truth.

When he says that created a “hesitancy” in him, of course it did. If you walked into a new job tomorrow, and your boss never really gives you clear and concise instructions on what he expects you to do, are you going to be at your very best right away, or will it take you some time to adjust?

Roy Williams is one of the best to ever coach college basketball, and one of his biggest strengths is the ability to find and recruit players that fit into his system. Coby White is the perfect example. Don’t be surprised when Cole Anthony and Armando Bacot have us saying the same thing next season.

Little is not one of those players that fit perfectly into what Williams wanted to do, but as far as I can tell, this was the closest that we came to hearing Little complain about it. He accepted his role, he got better throughout the year and he had some of his best games in big moments — the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, the Florida State game at home, the Virginia Tech game in January.

Maybe I’m reading this entirely wrong, but to me, Little doesn’t come off as bitter or angry, he sounds like a mature, self-aware kid that was honestly answering questions about his one season in college.

Javonte Smart’s decision to return to LSU could complicate things next season

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Javonte Smart announced over the weekend that he will be withdrawing from the NBA draft and returning to LSU for his sophomore season.

Smart is a 6-foot-4 point guard and a former four-star recruit that averaged 11.1 points, 3.3 boards and 2.4 assists as a freshman. He was one of six Tigers — along with Naz Reid, Tremont Waters, Skylar Mays, Marlon Taylor and Emmitt Williams — to declare for the draft. None of the other five have announced a decision yet.

In a vacuum, this is obviously a good thing for an LSU program that has quite a bit up in the air right now.

But there is more to this story than a solid freshman returning to school for his sophomore season, because Smart found himself smack in the middle of the controversy involving the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball. In March, Yahoo Sports reported that LSU head coach Will Wade was caught on a wire tap discussing with Christian Dawkins, an ex-runner for a former NBA agent that has been convicted of fraud and sentenced to prison as a result of this scandal, a “strong-ass” offer that he made to one of Smart’s handlers.

“I was thinking last night on this Smart thing,” Wade reportedly said in the conversation on wiretap with Dawkins. “I’ll be honest with you, I’m [expletive] tired of dealing with the thing. Like I’m just [expletive] sick of dealing with the [expletive]. Like, this should not be that [expletive] complicated.”

“Dude,” Wade continued to Dawkins, referring to the third party involved in the recruitment. “I went to him with a [expletive] strong-ass offer about a month ago. [Expletive] strong.

“The problem was, I know why he didn’t take it now, it was [expletive] tilted toward the family a little bit. It was tilted toward taking care of the mom, taking care of the kid. Like it was tilted towards that. Now I know for a fact he didn’t explain everything to the mom. I know now, he didn’t get enough of the piece of the pie in the deal.”

Smart was suspended for the final game of the regular season, but he was reinstated prior to the start of the SEC tournament. Will Wade was suspended at the same time, but he was not reinstated until last month.

This might end up being problematic, for Wade, for Smart and, potentially, for LSU. Smart returning to school means that the NCAA can now exert influence over him. They will be investigating everything that has popped up as a result of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption, from what was discussed at trial to the things that were reported separately in the media. I have very little doubt that LSU is going to be one of the programs that gets investigated, and since he is back in college, the NCAA will once again be able to hold power over him.

They can call him in to be interviewed. If he does not tell the truth in that interview, he can be suspended. If he does tell the truth, just how much of a headache is that going to be for the coaching staff and the program as a whole?

I don’t have the answer to that question, and based on LSU’s decision to reinstate Smart in March, they must either believe that the player did not know anything about that “strong-ass offer” or that the story is inaccurate in some way.

Either way, Smart’s decision to come back to school is going to complicate things, even if it makes the team better.