MADISON - Some would view trading a year of eligibility for mop-up minutes as a wasted opportunity. Vitto Brown doesn’t subscribe to that theory, not when those minutes have laid the groundwork for a second year that is allowing some of his raw athleticism to be refined.
Having played in 10 of UW’s 11 games, Brown is seeing a healthy 10.4 minutes off the bench and has been productive in his time on the court, averaging a respectable 4.2 points and 3.0 rebounds per game.
“I think his basketball skill level is catching up with what he can do physically right now,” said UW associate head coach Greg Gard. “He wants to be a very good player and he works extremely hard. He’s got a very good basketball IQ in terms of what he asks questions about and what he knows he needs to get better at in certain areas. I think the sky is going to be the limit for him.”
Recruited for his size (his 7-3 wingspan is the largest on the team) and his budding athleticism, Brown opted against redshirting last season in order to help UW provide depth in the wake of losing three seniors in the frontcourt.
But with the emergence of Frank Kaminsky into an All-American and fellow freshman Nigel Hayes into the conference’s sixth man of the year, Brown was mostly relegated to spectator status, playing a grand total of 44 minutes over 14 games.
“The definite big thing was not getting down during the game,” said Brown on last year’s learning lessons. “You put your head down for a second, something bad is happening on the other end. Transitioning from a bad play to getting back and making some good out of that was a big focus for me.”
Two examples popped into Brown’s mind of shaking off mistakes. In a road loss at Minnesota, Brown was called upon in the first half to eat up minutes for a foul-plagued Kaminsky, but struggled to guard the paint and challenge the athleticism from the Gophers.
In the national semifinals against Kentucky, Brown was surprised when his number was called, but failing to keep Julius Randle in front of him was the least of his problems. Beat off the dribble, Brown fouled Randle on a made layup, leading to a three-point play for Randle and a permanent seat on the bench for Brown. He finished with one minute played and one foul.
“Any time your number may be called,” said Brown. “You always have to be ready.”
With those moments in his head, Brown went to work with his teammates on making off season improvements. Ending last season at 245 pounds, he dropped about 10 pounds over the summer. Brown said the weight loss was unintentional and a byproduct of the amount of work he put in during weight room sessions and working on lateral and overall quickness.
“Vitto has been preparing for this whole summer,” said Hayes. “The players and the coaches let him know he would be getting minutes, so when he goes in he always plays within himself. He’s a smart player. I have to remind him he’s a shooter because he doesn’t always want to shoot the shots. When he goes in there he rebounds and plays defense. He doesn’t look for his shot as much, but that will start coming along for him.”
With the urging from Gard over the past two years to treat every day in practice like a game, Brown’s improvement on the scout team going against Kaminsky, Hayes, junior Sam Dekker and others has made him thrive against lesser competition.
He’s shooting 59.3 percent (16-for-27) on the season and reached double figures with a career-high 10 points in UW’s last game against Nicholls State Dec.13. He’s also becoming craftier on the glass with his long reach.
After he grabbed 12 rebounds all of last season, Brown already has 30 through 10 games played, including a career-high nine rebounds against Chattanooga.
The key now is to translate into games against tougher competition. He only played a combined five minutes against Georgetown and Oklahoma in the Bahamas, another five against Duke and didn’t play at all against Marquette.
“He’s got some abilities,” said UW coach Bo Ryan. “He’s trying to refine some things in his game. He’s trying to play more consistently and under control. Any minutes he can get on the court like that should be able to help him to gain some confidence. He’s playing behind a guy that’s not bad, just like Frank played behind a guy that wasn’t bad in (Jared) Berggren.”
Brown’s confidence is starting to build, which could give Wisconsin another weapon in its experience arsenal to make another title run.
“I think (the front court has real nice depth, and I think we have the talent this year to give Frank and Nigel that backup,” said Brown. “When they got tired last year, it was that ‘Who’s Next?’ response. We got thrown into the fire last year. I think this year we’re more ready for that.”