The NBA's best scorer happened to be there, too, tagging along with Texas. Kevin Durant, the bored former Longhorn phenom, asked coach Rick Barnes last week for permission to hang out in Austin and train at the team's facility. Durant became so attached to these baby 'Horns that he joined them for the trip to Jersey, as a sort of pseudo-assistant -- he rebounded for the Longhorns in warmups, and then chilled behind the bench -- who attracted plenty of attention. By my estimate, there were only a couple of hundred fans present for the consolation game between Texas and NC State, and roughly 62 of the 81 children in the crowd were able to obtain Durant's autograph.
The kids were not as interested in current Longhorn J'Covan Brown, who happened to be the nation's No. 1 scorer, averaging 29.3 points per game. Forgive them: Brown only averaged 10.4 points last season as a sophomore, and was regularly saddled with any number of euphemisms for "immature." Was never called a star. But through three games this season he was outscoring Harrison Barnes, Jared Sullinger, Jordan Taylor, John Jenkins, Tu Holloway, and many other All-America candidates, and thus was worthy of inspection. Had Brown undergone some kind of fundamental change that coincided with the opening of a massive offensive void, created when perimeter scorers Cory Joseph and Jordan Hamilton left early for the NBA Draft?
In the first half, that appeared to be the case. Initially playing alongside five-star freshman point guard Myck Kabongo, and then as the lone ballhandler after Kabongo picked up his second foul six minutes into the game, Brown put on the best scoring point-guard performance I've seen live in the past week. If that seems like a narrow filter, consider that on Tuesday at the Garden, I caught Seth Curry running Duke, Marquis Teague running Kentucky, and Tyshawn Taylor running Kansas. On Thursday and Friday, same spot, I saw Dee Bost leading Mississippi State and Josiah Turner and Jordin Mayes piloting Arizona. None of them destroyed a defense the way Brown did against NC State, mostly on drive-and-dish plays off high pick-and-rolls -- or, as Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried converted it into culinary terms, "He sliced us up like a side of fries."
Brown went into the break with eight points, five assists and no turnovers. Texas led 43-33. Never mind that Brown was well off his 29.3 scoring average; he was in total control of the game. I dared to say that he looked "mature," and was on the brink of buying into the "J'Covan Brown has matured and that's why he's better" storyline -- even more so after he scored nine early points in the second half, and his seventh assist put the Longhorns up 18 with 11:42 left on the clock.
And then ... Brown lost control.
He picked up his fourth foul with 8:25 left, in a scramble under the NC State basket; it was a questionable call, but it would nonetheless require him to take a spell on the bench. On his way off the court, the temper of the Old J'Covan Brown flared up, and he said either "F---" (his recollection) or "bulls---" (the recollection of others nearby) while passing right by one of the refs. The ref made the very reasonable decision to whistle Brown for a technical, which would count as his fifth personal. His night was over.
Texas imploded from that moment on, squandering a 65-52 lead to lose 77-74. Wolfpack guard Lorenzo Brown said he knew that once Brown was gone, the Longhorns "didn't have any scorers left." This was painfully evident, as their offense ground to a halt, proving how vital Brown is to Texas having any type of success this season -- and how little it can afford to have him lose his head. 'Horns coach Rick Barnes praised Brown's early play but then made a few ominous comments, saying that Brown "has to grow up," and "if he doesn't do what we want to do, we'll move on without him."
Brown was only half-willing to own up to his actions. He said he made a mistake, but was adamant -- despite that he swore within a few steps of a ref -- that he was just scolding himself, rather than regressing into behavior unfit for a team leader. "It wasn't toward the ref," he said, "so I don't think [it means] I've taken a step back."
With that, Brown pulled his Beats down over his ears, and walked off to the Texas bus, leaving the stage to evening's other two attractions: Vanderbilt's John Jenkins and Oregon State's Jared Cunningham, who are both junior shooting guards. Jenkins is a known-enough commodity, a fringe All-America from last season who's an early favorite for SEC Player of the Year. He was averaging 23.0 points, good for ninth in the nation, and had gone 6-of-7 from long range -- a vintage Jenkins shooting night -- in a semifinal win over the Wolfpack. Cunningham had far less national exposure; he averaged 14.2 points as a sophomore and was mostly known for one killer YouTube clip from a follow-dunk against Arizona last January. But he went off for 35 and 37 points in the Beavers' previous two wins, over Hofstra and Texas, and trailed only Brown in the national scoring race.
As tends to be the case in star-versus-star showdowns, they did not live up to the hype. Although Jenkins was Vandy's leading scorer in its 64-62, nail-biting victory, he had just 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting, and it was fellow guard Brad Tinsley who hit the game-winning shot with 4.5 seconds left. Cunningham didn't even crack double-digits, going 3-of-9 from the field with seven turnovers, and misfiring on his attempt to counter Tinsley at the buzzer.
But there was still much to be learned about each star, starting with how they differ. Jenkins is a gunner with a projectible NBA skill -- the ability to run off screens and drill threes with very little space between him and a defender. Each of the seven times he slithered free for a long-range attempt, you could imagine the entire Oregon State coaching staff wincing, this being the one scoring option they most preferred Vandy not to have. It is worth noting, then, who was saddled with the responsibility of dogging Jenkins for most of the 38 minutes he was on the floor: Cunningham.
Cunningham is a different offensive player than Jenkins -- more of a slasher, a get-to-the-foul-line guy who's inconsistent on threes, but will kill you in transition -- but the way the Beavers' guard distinguished himself most was by serving as the focal point of their offense and guarding the focal point of the opposing offense. Vandy buried Jenkins on the lowest-impact defensive assignment available; on one late-game possession, I spotted him guarding OSU power forward Joe Burton, who was offensive option No. 5. Cunningham, says coach Craig Robinson, "relishes being a scorer who can guard the team's best guard and hold him under his average. ... It's a tribute to his selflessness."
Such selflessness, however, can breed fatigue, and although Cunningham made a serious defensive impact with seven steals, he admitted, "I didn't really get into the flow of the offense, because my main focus was trying to stop Jenkins." Combine that with the fact that Cunningham was draped by Vandy's lone perimeter stopper, 6-foot-7 small forward Jeff Taylor -- as was written in the magazine's preview issue, he guards guards because the Commodores' guards can't guard guards -- and the Beavers' No. 1 option too often faded into the background. Taylor denied passes to Cunningham and kept him from driving, and the diminutive guard who took over Oregon State's offense as a result, 5-9 sophomore Ahmad Starks, went 6-of-20. Starks did hit a monster shot to tie the game at 62-62 in the final minute, but the Beavers would be best off if Cunningham were the one taking 20 attempts.
Jenkins, in the end, proved to be the superior decoy. With Cunningham glued to him, and instructed never to help off him, the Commodores' other four starters (Tinsley, Taylor, Lance Goulbourne and Steve Tchiengang) combined to shoot 16-of-30 from the field. Tchiengang, who at 6-9 was allowed to step out to the perimeter unchecked, hit a huge three with 4:26 left, and Tinsley, who was left in a favorable matchup against Starks with the clock ticking down, was responsible for the dagger.
Tinsley knew, however, who was responsible for him getting to operate freely in isolation. "John is such a great offensive weapon," he said, "that a lot of times, teams just flood to him." So much of Cunningham's energy had flooded into that duty that not enough remained to orchestrate a game-winner. Jenkins won and Brown lost his mind, but Cunningham merely ran out of steam.