MADISON, Wis. — There are instances on the basketball court in which Vitto Brown looks every bit the player he is capable of becoming, someone with athleticism and toughness who can convert a tough layup in traffic or swish a mid-range jumper with ease. The problem for Brown, a sophomore who is still learning the game in Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan’s system, are those other instances that show how far he has to go.
During practices, for example, he may find himself out of place while running against a scout team’s zone defense. He may throw the wrong pass. He may forget to pump fake or attack despite a clear advantage near the post. And he may allow an incoming pass to roll right off his hands, the result of trying to act too quickly before the play has developed.
All of those small details are part of the learning curve for Brown, a reserve averaging 8.8 minutes, 2.8 points and 2.1 rebounds for the sixth-ranked Badgers.
"A lot of that is comfort level," Badgers assistant coach Lamont Paris said. "And not having in your own mind 20 things going on. I’ve got to pump fake. I turned it over the last time. They said the guy was cutting down the baseline and I missed him so I’m looking for that. Is the guy off of me? Do I attack here? I know I’ve got to pump fake when I get to the rim.
"There’s a lot of things that may be going through your head at that time. You want to slow the game down and simplify it. A lot of that comes with playing more minutes, but you have to find a way to simplify the game."
Brown has borne the brunt of many of Ryan’s quips during practice. In one practice earlier this season, after Brown mishandled the ball and turned it over, Ryan chastised him by saying the ball was not a grenade and would not explode in his hands if he simply held onto it. But Brown, for what it’s worth, has taken those criticisms in stride.
"He gets on everybody," Brown said. "He gets on me a lot. But it’s positive. I have stuff that I can work on. He identifies that for me."
This season, Brown, a 6-foot-8, 237-pounder from Bowling Green, Ohio, has found himself in the unenviable task of never knowing how much he’ll actually play on game day. He has played as many as 20 minutes against Chattanooga, and did not enter the game at all against Marquette. He’s played 17 minutes against Nicholls State and one minute against Oklahoma.
Ryan, like many college coaches, has been known to shorten his playing rotation during the most critical stretches of the season. But Brown has worked his way into that rotation this season off the bench, even if it comes only a few minutes at a time. It certainly is a step up from last season, when he appeared in 14 games and averaged 3.1 minutes per outing.
"At first it was frustrating," Brown said. "But recently I’ve just been trying to stay focused on being ready when your number is called. It could be three minutes if Frank (Kaminsky) is on. But if he gets in foul trouble, then you might be playing 10. So you’ve just got to be ready at all times.
"I don’t know what I am right now. Garbage man. Just do what we need right now. And maybe my role will expand as time goes on."
When Brown plays enough minutes, he generally has done something positive. During the Chattanooga game when he played a career-high 20 minutes, he tallied a career-high nine rebounds. Against Nicholls State, he scored a career-best 10 points in those 17 minutes. But Brown also must build enough trust for Ryan to put him in bigger situations.
"Sometimes it’s tough to be in that position," Badgers forward Sam Dekker said. "You don’t exactly know how to play your minutes. But he’s just got to come in with energy. He’s got to play hard and play smart. He can do a lot of good things for us when he’s under control, takes his time and just uses his body.
"When he gets under control and his mind settles down, he’s a very good player. We’ve seen it. We know what he can do. He has to have a concerted effort doing that every time he’s on the floor and not worry about how many minutes it is but how many quality minutes he gets. Once he gets that under control, I think then he’ll be really good."
Brown said he wanted to work on staying more active in the post, among other improvements. There are occasions in which he flashes inside but does not provide the guards with enough time to throw him the ball. If he focuses his energy on sealing his man to create easy touches, he said, it could draw fouls on opponents and give him free throws.
For the most part, however, Brown has been pleased to see progress. He is contributing more this season on a team with national championship aspirations, which was one of his offseason goals.
"Last year, they’d say you were a part of it and you worked with them in practice," he said. "But now getting a chance to apply some of that in a game, that’s big. But I just want to keep on increasing that contribution."