By Greg Ostendorf
SAN DIEGO -- When Auburn returned home from St. Louis following a quarterfinal loss to Alabama last Friday, Bryce Brown went straight to the gym. The junior guard didn't wait until Saturday or Sunday. He didn't wait until the team's next practice. He was in the gym the same night as the game, getting shots up and working to get better.
"It's been no days off for me," Brown said. "I'm not tired. I'm physically feeling good. My injuries are almost over. I'm ready to get out there and compete against other teams and show them that we can shock a lot of people."
For Brown, he's been having to prove people wrong his whole life.
In high school, it didn't matter what he did. It didn't matter that he averaged 18 points a game as a junior or 25 points a game as a senior. It didn't matter that he would outplay top-level recruits like Jalen Adams or Antonio Blakeney when their teams met. For some reason, he just didn't quite measure up to some of the other elite players in his region.
"I just feel like I was always underrated," Brown said. "I always put the work in, and when it was time to perform, I felt like I performed. And I still flew under the radar and still just didn't get the credit I felt like I deserved."
So what did Brown do? He kept working. He stayed in the gym, continuously getting shots up day after day, year after year. He carried that chip on his shoulder through high school and on to Auburn where he wasn't even Bruce Pearl's first choice at the shooting guard position.
This season, although he was snubbed for First-Team All-SEC, Brown has emerged as one of the best players in the conference. He's averaging 16.2 points per game. He's made 101 three-point shots, and his 235 career makes from beyond the arc are the most by any player in Auburn history through their first three seasons.
As a result, he's finally earning the recognition that comes with being a star.
"I've always put in the work, and so I just felt like it would pay off eventually," Brown said. "It definitely is now."
In your head, think about how many shots would quantify "a lot" for one day. Now consider that in the offseason, Brown aims to get up 800 makes per day. Not just shots. He wants to see 800 shots go through the net before he calls it quits.
Who is typically standing under the rim, rebounding and passing the ball back to him for those 800 makes? His father, Cedric Brown.
"The thing is that I have two boys," Cedric said. "I say if you're going to do anything, let's go all in. You can't be one foot in and one foot out. I do everything I can do to help you prepare, and Bryce committed very early that this is something he always wanted to do."
When Bryce was 16, he nearly lost his father. It was around this same time four years ago that Cedric suffered a heart attack while at home. Bryce was the only other person in the house at the time, and all of a sudden, he heard his dad screaming his name. When he realized what was happening, he immediately called 9-1-1 for help.
"I was trying to do everything I could just so he could stay alive," Bryce said. "He was off the bed, on the ground, having a heart attack. I didn't know it was a heart attack. I just knew he was in pain. He was grabbing his chest, and I knew he was in pain."
Bryce rode in the ambulance with his father to the hospital where Cedric would eventually make a full recovery. But that day changed Bryce. It made him grow up.
"When that happened, I matured a little more," Bryce said. "I was very much appreciative of life."
Off the court, Bryce grew in his faith after the incident and worked to become a better person. On the court, a sense of urgency developed. His focus changed. Basketball went from something he did for fun to something he became passionate about.
That passion has only gotten stronger over the years, and this past offseason, Bryce realized that basketball was something he could continue to do even after he graduates college. He could make a living playing the game he loves, and once he understood that, his game elevated to a new level that it's not reached before.
"The maturity that he's gained since he's been at Auburn -- this year, it really kind of accelerated," Cedric said. "I think some of that came from deciding that this is what I want to do, and I'm going to have to mature if I want to be a professional at whatever level. Whether it's in Europe somewhere or here in the United States, I'm going to have to mature.
"And I think he made that commitment."
As Bryce prepares for his first NCAA Tournament game this Friday, he can appreciate the path he's taken to get to this point. He can appreciate signing with Auburn. He can appreciate the hard work and commitment that's finally paying off this season.
But more than anything, he's just happy to be healthy.
A month ago, Bryce was dealing with a shoulder strain to his shooting shoulder and a bruise on his foot that put him in a walking boot. The injuries took their toll on the junior guard, who struggled to find his range for most of February.
"It's been difficult," Bryce said at the time. "I'm a shooter. The fact that it was my shooting arm and not my off arm, that's what made it kind of difficult. I tried to affect the game in other ways as best as I could, but battling a foot injury, I struggled defensively in games as well."
"I think it's been challenging on both of us because we knew the reason for his slump," Cedric said. "We're not having the chance to work out like we normally do. We couldn't get shots up. That's the frustrating part of it."
Slowly but surely, Bryce worked his way back to where he was able to go through his normal shooting regimen without a hitch. And though Cedric thought they'd see results against Arkansas, it didn't come until the following game against South Carolina -- the regular-season finale -- when Bryce knocked down eight 3-point shots and finished with a game-high 29 points to help Auburn win and clinch its first SEC regular-season title since 1999.
It was vintage Bryce, the Bryce we saw before the injuries, and per usual, Cedric played a major role in his son's return to form.
"My dad just helped me keep that confidence," Bryce said. "I would get down after games, and he was like `Hey man, I'll come down there, help you get in the gym, and we'll get shots up. We're going to get it fixed.' He had no doubt in his mind that we weren't going to get things changed around. He stayed by my side just like he's always done.
"I have to thank him for that because he stayed there. He kept that confidence to the point where I felt like even though I missed six, I still could go make the next six just because I knew he believed in me."
Though Bryce scored only 11 points in that loss to Alabama last weekend, his swagger is back. And when he's healthy, confident and motivated, there might not be a more dangerous player on this Auburn team, let alone the country.
Like he said, it's time to "shock a lot of people."
Greg Ostendorf is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @greg_ostendorf
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