NCAA BASKETBALL – As the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament arrives, Will Brown’s answer to the question so many sports fans are asking each other is the common one.
“My bracket’s a mess, to be honest with you,” Brown said. “I have no problem sharing that with you. I had Duke in the Final Four, and I believe my championship game — I don’t have my bracket in front of me — was Duke and Gonzaga. So, that shows you how much I know.”
Brown, obviously, knows quite a bit. The former UAlbany men’s basketball head coach led teams of Great Danes to five different NCAA tournament berths during his two decades leading the program, a run that ended in 2021. Now 51 years old, the Long Island native and Capital Region resident was among the crowd of fans that packed MVP Arena in Albany for last Friday’s first-round games, and his Twitter account was loaded with commentary throughout the opening week of the tournament as he watched the rest of the action unfold on TV.
Part of all that watching was for fun — most of it, though, was for work. After leading the Albany Patroons last year, Brown exited from the professional franchise to focus on getting back into college coaching. He said he expects to be “coaching again soon,” and that “without getting into great detail, I’ve got some stuff cooking,” on that front, so the NCAA tournament, which serves up one high-quality game after another, makes for a valuable tool.
“One of the things with me — and a lot of coaches, I think — is when you’ve been coaching for a while, you fall into a comfort zone that you’ve got this game figured out, but the game is always evolving, so you have to evolve as a coach,” Brown said. “So a lot of it for me is studying other coaches. I mean, I [re]watched every offensive possession on Synergy from St. Mary’s and UConn, their first two tournament games, and I’ve watched every possession of Houston defensively because I think they’re arguably the best defensive team in the country. As much as I’ve watched UConn and St. Mary’s over the year, I just watched them run some offensive actions in the NCAA tournament that I really liked, so I break out my legal pads and I just take notes. Most people call it a problem or an addiction, but it’s just what I do. It’s what I enjoy.”
With the men’s tournament set to resume Thursday with Sweet 16 games in New York and Las Vegas, The Daily Gazette caught up with Brown to discuss the opening games and the ones to come. (Questions and answers have been lightly edited for clarity and space.)
Question: A quick look at your Twitter feed — @CoachWB33 — shows you’re never long between watching a basketball game at some level. The men’s tournament has included 52 games to this point. How many did you see at least some of?
Answer: Every one of them. I mean, honestly, maybe there was a game while four were going on at the same time that I didn’t watch a lot of — but I watched at least a part of it. I was just going back and forth.
Q: From a fan perspective, which game did you enjoy the most?
A: Probably Fairleigh Dickinson vs. Purdue, [the No. 16 seed upsetting the No. 1]. I’m a huge fan of Purdue coach Matt Painter; he’s got a great basketball mind, especially offensively. Watching how small FDU was, I thought that 7-foot-4 Zach Edey might score 100 against them. But, then, a Purdue team that won the Big Ten regular season and won the Big Ten tournament championship, their perimeter guys got gun-shy, basically, the entire second half because jump shots weren’t falling. FDU totally disrespected them — and they’re good players — because they were just like, ‘Hey, we can’t let Edey beat us, so we’re going to dare you guys to make jump shots for 40 minutes — and, if you do, well, then it wasn’t meant to be.’ And I was watching Purdue guys get real hesitant, and I watched an FDU team just be absolutely fearless.
Q: Tobin Anderson coached that Fairleigh Dickinson team, and now is the new head coach at Iona. He paid a lot of dues at different levels of college basketball before getting his first Division I head coaching job. You always were vocal about how all levels of college basketball have great players and coaches. Any extra joy watching someone like Anderson have the success he did this March?
A: No doubt. One, Tobin’s a good guy. And, two, Tobin’s a ball coach. He never seemed to get discouraged. I’m sure there were plenty of times he thought in the back of his mind, ‘Am I ever going to catch a break?’ But he just went about his business.
Q: That has to be tough to do.
A: But I think you have to look at it that way. Like, when I was coaching junior college, I was like, ‘You know what? This is my Duke. This is my Kentucky. I’m going to make the most of it.’ I think that’s what Tobin does. And, eventually, when you continue to win, people take notice.
Q: Besides Fairleigh Dickinson vs. Purdue, was there another game that stuck out to you?
A: Watching [15th-seed] Princeton dismantle Missouri [78-63], a team that overachieved all year with that pressure defense, a good offense. They’re a team that was coming out of the SEC, which is one of the top-two leagues in the country, and to watch a team like Princeton come out and never get sped up, play at their own tempo, share the basketball — and it wasn’t even a close game.
Q: Back to your bracket. Duke’s out, but Gonzaga’s still around. Is this the year?
A: I’m a huge Gonzaga fan, and I think they’re flying under the radar. I do think, and I don’t care what anybody says, that Drew Timme’s the best player in college basketball. He’s definitely the best big man; I love Zach Edey, but Timme’s a below-the-rim guy who just dominates with footwork, and angles and shot fakes. The defense is focused on stopping him, but I think they’ve got veteran pieces around him. I think if they get past UCLA, which is going to be a bloodbath in the Sweet 16, that they’ve got a shot to win the whole thing.
Q: So Timme’s your favorite current college player?
A: I love him because he just plays with pure joy and passion. He’s a free spirit. And, obviously, he’s really good.
Q: Which other players remaining in the tournament are among your favorites to watch?
A: I really like Markquis Nowell at Kansas State. What he does at that size is really impressive. I know there’s a lot of issues around him right now, but, from a pure basketball standpoint, Brandon Miller is outstanding from Alabama. You know, 6-foot-9 with that skill set. He’s terrific. And I think an under-the-radar guy, whose basketball IQ is off the charts, is Tosan Evbuomwan, the Ivy League Player of the Year, the 6-foot-8 kid from England for Princeton. He’s terrific inside, outside, can shoot it from 3 a little bit, handles the ball. And my favorite non-starter in the entire tournament, and I think he’ll be as crucial as any player to help his team win a national championship, is Donovan Clingan at UConn. Adama Sanogo is so good that there’s only so many minutes for Clingan to play, but he impacts the game every time he’s on the floor.
Q: OK, that’s the players. Favorite coach left in the tournament? Probably more than one, right?
A: One of my favorite offensive coaches in the country is Greg McDermott at Creighton. He does a tremendous job running sets with a lot of false motion and misdirection. I really enjoy watching Kelvin Sampson coach because he, literally, is going to make sure that nobody out-toughs them or out-competes them. Now, no, they don’t play in the SEC or the Big 12, but I think that adds to why they’re so good because I think they play with a chip on their shoulder because, all year, there were a lot of people out there saying, ‘They’re really not that good, they just don’t play anybody.’ And, like I’ve said, I’m a huge Gonzaga fan, and what Mark Few has done there is just so impressive.
Q: Best games coming up?
A: UCLA and Gonzaga, two West Coast teams, that’s going to be a really fun game, but styles make matchups. You’ve got Creighton that just wants to play fast and get out in transition vs. a Princeton team that’s going to try to control tempo. Alabama’s going to want to score 100, and San Diego State’s going to want to play at a snail’s pace and punch Alabama in the mouth. Houston is going to win with defense and rebounding, and Miami wants to try to outscore you. So, for me, it’s the intriguing matchups. Like, Arkansas coach Eric Musselman is all about isolation play on offense and trying to take advantage of 1-on-1 matchups — so, who is he going to look at at UConn, and who is he going to pick on defensively?
Contact Michael Kelly at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @ByMichaelKelly.
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