During Winthrop men’s basketball practice on Monday, Eagles forward Larry Brown crashed the backboard for what looked like an easy putback after he ghosted past his defender’s box-out.
But Brown’s shot spun around the rim and out, and then, in his frustration and a rush of blood to the head, he fouled the defensive rebounder.
Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey whistled a stop to practice, telling Brown he wasn’t upset about his errant shot at the rim, but the needless foul afterward that compounded the miss. As the Eagles (13-10, 6-4) won three straight games last week, and go for a fourth Wednesday night at Longwood (7-18, 2-8), Brown has been making less and less of those kinds of double-whammy plays.
“He wanted the ball back so badly, and as soon as he looks at me, he knows,” Kelsey said, referring to Brown’s play earlier in practice.
According to KenPom.com, if Brown was to play a full, 40-minute college basketball game, he would pick up 7.3 fouls. He’s fouled out of four games this season and picked up four fouls (obvious foul trouble) in a further nine contests. At one point this season, the 6-foot-6 junior led the Big South in fouls committed per game at over four. He’s now down to 3.3, which is still second most in the conference behind High Point guard Adam Weary’s 3.5. Kelsey said Brown has been “battling injuries all year, and also his own defensive demons.”
For Brown, there is a fine line between aggressive defense and smart defense.
“Sometimes, it’s really hard,” he said, while riding the team bus up to Farmville, Va. “I see opportunities to poke the ball away and sometimes I win or lose, so it’s a home run or a strikeout.”
But, Brown only picked up two fouls each in conference wins over Liberty and Campbell last week, impressive considering Liberty’s height on the frontline and the matchup problems that Campbell’s perimeter-oriented post players pose. Kelsey credited Brown’s attention to scouting reports in advance of games and his understanding of the Eagles’ pack-line defensive system. Brown’s slowly diminishing fouling issues have been a boon to Winthrop’s defensive backline.
“I think we’ve been a good defensive team the whole year, but I think Larry’s emergence as an identity defender for us has been a huge difference,” said Kelsey. “His ability to stay on the floor, to avoid silly fouls and undisciplined fouls, and to play sustained minutes, gives us, in my mind, one of the best defenders in the Big South for extended periods of time.”
Brown could again be influential Wednesday night against the Lancers. Far from a banana peel game, Winthrop is taking its hosts very seriously after Longwood beat the Eagles last year in Rock Hill. Winthrop has won three out of its last five games on the road in conference play, a massive improvement over a 12-game conference road losing streak that was snapped at Presbyterian on Jan. 8. To keep that trend going, they’ll need to tame Longwood post player Jeylani Dublin, who had a solid game inside for the Lancers in the win over Winthrop last season, scoring 13 points.
“He’s a prototypical Big South, sort of undersized, big, who just plays like a junkyard dog,” said Kelsey. “He’s productive because he gives them easy baskets right around the rim. It’ll be another big assignment for Larry.”
Brown said Dublin is a “big-time left shoulder guy,” meaning he favors a baby hook shot over his left shoulder, and that “he really loves contact.” Dublin also rebounds over 14 percent of the offensive rebound opportunities Longwood gets while he’s on the floor. That’s 33rd best in NCAA, and second best in the Big South, behind Liberty rebounding machine J.R. Coronado (15.3). For perspective, Winthrop’s highest offensive rebounding percentages come from James Bourne (9.8) and Tevin Prescott (9.1).
Dublin and guard Tristan Carey, the Lancers’ leading scorer who Kelsey called “a time bomb” waiting to explode offensively, combine to hoist over 60 percent of Longwood’s shots. Take Dublin out of the equation and Jayson Gee’s team doesn’t have many more sources of offense to tap. If Brown can stay out of foul trouble and limit Dublin Wednesday, the Eagles will be in business, just like they were last Saturday against Campbell when the Red Springs, N.C., native had one of his best games for Winthrop.
Brown finished with a season-high 12 points and seven rebounds, had a steal and a block, and threw down several breakaway slams that shook the Winthrop Coliseum to life. That’s the Larry Brown that Winthrop needs, not the one sitting on the bench, frustrated.
“I told our guys several games ago that we needed some identity defenders to emerge to give us our identity back on the defensive end,” said Kelsey. “And I really think Larry has been one of those. His ability to make us an elite defensive team is really what makes him good for us.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032 Twitter: @BretJust1T