By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
He's also available. Brown's family is back in Philadelphia; he's here alone, with only his routine to keep him occupied. "I go from here to eatZi's, get some dinner, to my apartment to here in the morning to Starbucks to practice to eatZi's," he says. "And God forbid I don't have it on my GPS or I'm in trouble."
In the evenings, if he's not at SMU, he attends high school games. In January, it was DeSoto and Duncanville.
"It was great. Double overtime. It was unbelievable," Brown says. "Two great coaches, I mean, those guys could coach. I love watching kids and being out in the community. DeSoto kids lined up. A'ight? They were all dressed basically the same. But all of them tucked their warm-ups in their pants. One kid had his warm-up out, and they were lining up for the national anthem. And the coach patted him on the ass, and said tuck it in right away. He had me, then and there."
Mostly, though, Brown keeps returning to the practice court and its familiar dimensions, lines and hardwood surface. He knows the routine and the cadence, the rituals of preparation. It's far from home, but it is home.
Brown has his team running fast-break drills. They start two-on-two, then add a player back and forth until it's five-on-four. Predictably, Brown grows annoyed.
"Where does our ball belong?" This is not a rhetorical question. He waits for an answer. The players are silent. Brown gives up. "In the middle! We do this everyday."
Nic Moore is a transfer student. Because of NCAA rules, he's ineligible to play this season. They could certainly use him. One of Brown's first actions as a coach was to cut several members of the team, players he thought would never see time on the court. The roster was depleted with hopes set on next season. Moore will be an impact player. He led his previous team, Illinois State, in assists and was a capable scorer. In practice, Brown likes what he sees.
"The pick was great," Brown says. "The roll was great. The finish just has to be better."
Moore, who wears a smug expression as a default, offers his hand to the coach. Brown gives him a low five.
Now Brown is pleased with another player, one of his bench guards who finally played defense. The coach opens his arms to the sheepish freshman, in a move that's thoroughly, embarrassingly dad-like. "Give me a hug!" Brown says. The player pretends to be unsure but goes in for one anyway.
The head coach of Southern Miss is the quintessential Animated Stander. He's doughy, no neck, with short spiky hair that's given an unhealthy coat of gel. He paces and shouts, waves his arms at his players and pleads with the refs. His face turns bright red and he forgets to breathe. He has plenty to be in a huff about, too: His team is down 19 to SMU, thanks to some solid three-point shooting from Shawn Williams.
The Mustangs are 11-7 heading into this game and doing some things well. They have strong talent among their starters, who all return next season. They haven't been blown out in any of their losses, which may bode well for a future that will include tougher opponents both inside and out of the Big East. But the essential truth of this season is that SMU is in transition. They don't have enough good players to carry them from the opening buzzer to the final second, to close out close games. They need Moore on the court. They need next year's recruits now.
In the second half, Southern Miss employs a full-court press. SMU doesn't have a serviceable bench; Brown's starters play 30-plus minutes every game. They're tired when Southern Miss goes on the attack, and they lose, 74 to 70.
"I knew this year would be real difficult," Brown says. "As long as we try — try to get better, come to practice every day, respecting their teammates, I can handle what happens in the games. We've invented ways to lose games, but we're in every game just about, and that's something I'm proud of. I know with our transfers and with our recruiting class, and our potential, we're going to get better quickly."
At the end, the band plays the mournful school song and the students, coaches, players and alumni raise two fingers — pony ears, their collegiate hand sign, but today it looks like an acknowledgment: We're not quite No. 1. Over the next two months, they'll watch their team's winning record evaporate, as the Mustangs struggle and finish 5-11 in the conference and 15-16 overall. They've been stronger in their losses, more determined in defeat than in years past. Still, too many of their victories have been of the moral variety.
After Southern Miss, though, Brown's players remain hopeful. When asked about the season, they adopt their coach's message to keep practicing, to play as a team. They may not realize it, but they've internalized the tenets of The Right Way.
"Keep going," Jalen Jones says. "Keep going hard in practice. Coach has been supportive of the losses we took, but he continues to build and coach us up, and prepare us for our next games."