MINNEAPOLIS — The sky was falling in Auburn Arena.
A loss to D-II Barry University in the Tigers’ 2017 exhibition contest was the cherry on top. Hindrances and confusion began that week when it was announced then-sophomores Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley would be withheld from the game due to eligibility fears regarding their involvement in the nationwide college basketball FBI probe. Fans weren’t yet aware the recently unveiled Chuck Person scandal would soon climb up to that scale.
Still, 6,374 packed into Auburn Arena, ready for an easy victory over a team out of their league in college basketball to ease the frustrations. They were handed a 100-95 loss, adding more fodder for pundits to declare the season hopeless and Bruce Pearl’s job doomed.
And Bryce Brown let the weight of the moment turn into the best and worst day of his Auburn basketball career — so far.
As Auburn headed to the locker room, Brown, an early junior at the time who averaged nearly nine points a game through his first two seasons, exploded. He “lashed out” at teammates and coaches, assistant coach Steven Pearl said Friday at the Final Four. His teammates were speechless. Brown, like everyone else in Auburn Arena that day, could see the Tigers’ hope of a successful 2017-18 campaign slipping away, and that frustration came to a head in a way that could have been vastly detrimental to his career.
Instead, the incident turned Brown’s career on its head, from mopey, angry, pain-in-the-butt Bryce Brown to who he is now — Auburn’s mature, emotional and established leader who’s leading his squad during their best postseason run in program history.
“Bryce used to do a lot of ‘young’ things,” Purifoy said. “Coming into college, you probably feel like you’re still in high school and you can do whatever you want to do, just doing the things freshmen would do.
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“After that loss, it seems like he changed a lot. Losing to a D-II school is not cool. That changed the atmosphere and the intensity of the game for us. It turned a lot of things around.”
Brown would be the first to admit he hasn’t always had smooth relationships with coaches and players. Steven Pearl was his academic outlet during Brown’s early years, making sure the youngster from Stone Mountain, Georgia, attended class, did his assignments and kept his grades up.
The two didn’t always see eye to eye.
His sophomore season, Brown would show up to late to practices and be lethargic, even when Bruce Pearl was in his ear for it.
“Really, I felt like I wasn't heading down the right path to be able to change the program, and that's part of what I wanted to do when I got here, help change the program,” Brown said. “I just wanted to have this be the time for me to be a leader on the team, and it was time to start growing up.”
The first step was to issue a warning. Next, Brown’s playing time would be cut into. If Brown was late to class, that was equally as bad as showing up late in the practice gym.
Now, the words “late” and “practice” are still very much associated with Brown — when he stays for hours afterward, hoisting hundreds of extra shots.
“Something about that just made it hit the light for me and kind of did turn on the switch,” Brown said, “just because I had to start growing up, and things had to change if I wanted to get to where I wanted to get to as an individual or if I wanted to get to where I wanted to get to as a team. I knew I had to change for the good.”
Brown’s work ethic was never in question, though. He aimed for greatness, but when the inevitable pitfalls came, he never knew how to pick himself back up. He was used to high school, where his sheer talent could levy any issues.
“Bryce is a great kid from a great family who came to Auburn a little spoiled and immature,” Bruce Pearl said.
Bruce Pearl said it was Brown’s family — primarily, his father, Cedric — whom Bruce Pearl credits for stepping in and making sure he accepted the coaching.
“I really appreciate Coach Pearl for allowing my dad to be so interactive with the program and be able to come down here and help not only prepare me for this but help coach me as well,” Brown said. “He allows my dad to have a little input on how I play and the things I do. You know, that just goes with having a good coach that trusts me, trusts my father, and know that he's going to put me in the right situation to succeed.”
And to Bryce's credit, he’d understood that. He always had, even when he was lashing out at teammates or rolling his eyes at coaches. The guilt always set in fast.
“Bryce would always tell you when he was acting out or pouting about something,” Steven Pearl said. “When Bryce was out of line, Bryce always recognized it and apologized.
“It’s been such a pleasure to kind of see where he came from — from his freshman and sophomore year — to now. It’s the reason why we get into coaching, to see those kinds of developments.”
Five hundred and twenty-one days removed from the loss to Barry, Brown couldn’t be more different than the man from that night. After tough losses, it’s Brown that keeps those locker room disasters from unfolding now, instilling wisdom and peace in the upset young players: If we can’t lose together, we can’t win together.
“He’s always there to pick everybody up,” Wiley said. “He’s more vocal than when we started being teammates.”
Win or lose Saturday, Minneapolis will be Brown’s curtain call in the orange and blue. He’s the most prolific 3-point shooter in Auburn history and the second-best one in conference history. He’s propelled Auburn to victory by way of his torching right hand and silky-smooth shooting strokes more times than Bruce Pearl could easily recall. He’s the glue that holds together Auburn’s first 30-win team ever.
And if Auburn is to upset 1-seed Virginia and kill off its fourth straight college basketball powerhouse, the Tigers will lean on Brown on and off the court. Just as he always stayed focused and accountable during his more immature years, Brown has one aspiration in mind amidst the pressure-packed environment of the Final Four: “We all want to win a national championship.”
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