Brown looks to meet Martin’s high expectations

Coach Cuonzo Martin called Brown’s game on Saturday the best he’s played in a Missouri uniform.

Missouri sophomore forward Kobe Brown put up 14 points in the Tigers’ third game of the season on Dec. 6, a total that remains his season-high. Coach Cuonzo Martin had to be thrilled with that performance, right?

“I didn’t think he played a great game,” Martin said that afternoon, following the Tigers’ convincing road win over Wichita State. “He’s a talented player, yes, but I didn’t think he played a great game by any stretch.”

Six days later, against Illinois, Brown scored in double-figures again, amassing 12 points on a very efficient five-of-eight shooting. He also made two three-pointers, a crucial contribution for a team who often can’t do that and whose main three-point shooting threat, Mark Smith, began a shooting slump at that game that he still hasn’t broken out of.

Brown gobbled eight rebounds and provided crucial frontcourt minutes with big man Jeremiah Tilmon in foul trouble. So Martin must have been impressed.

“I thought he was solid,” Martin said. “I didn’t think he was great, I thought he was solid. I don’t say that to be bad.… I thought he was solid offensively. He has to get better on the defensive side of the ball.”

When coaches ask more of their players despite solid statistical outputs, that typically means one of two things: either the stats don’t tell the entire story or the coach is very high on the player.

In Brown’s case, it’s both. The three-star recruit from Huntsville, Ala. impressed Martin enough to start 26 of his 30 games as a true freshman in 2019, including opening night.

He’s started every game of the 2020 season as well, despite strong competition off the bench from Javon Pickett and Mitchell Smith. Martin has lauded both of them for some of his favorite traits: aggressiveness, physicality and defensive versatility.

However, both Pickett and Smith remain on the bench to start games. And on Saturday in College Station, at least in Martin’s eyes, Brown showed why.

“I thought this was, in my opinion, Kobe’s best game since he’s been in a Mizzou uniform,” Martin said. “In my opinion, that physical brand and going toe to toe, I thought he did a great job.”

The stat line against Texas A&M was solid — Brown scored nine points on 80% shooting. His five rebounds contributed to the winning effort, too. But Martin focused on the more intangible parts of Brown’s performance, which Brown agreed made it his best game.

“He was proud of me for locking in on my assignments and just coming out with toughness and grit,” Brown said on Monday. “Keeping number five [forward Emanuel Miller] and the four men on that team off the boards, that’s pretty much what he’s proud of.”

Through Brown’s time in Columbia, Martin has believed in him for a few reasons: he can be incredibly effective on a dribble-drive, he’s a physical player who can be a force on the glass and he’s big and fast enough to defend most players on the floor.

In turn, Martin will harp on Brown when he isn’t aggressive enough on the drive or defending as well as he should, like against Illinois. Occasionally, Brown found himself matched up on offense with Kofi Cockburn, Illinois’ hulking yet not as mobile 7-foot center.

“I think he has to get better, especially when he had Kofi on him, taking advantage of that matchup, taking him off the dribble,” Martin said. “I thought he settled for a 3 early. ‘Cause Kobe’s good off the bounce. He got a big guy like that on him like that, he can make plays.”

Against Texas A&M, however, Brown only shot one three, which he drilled. He defended as well as he had all season and when he does that, as teammate Dru Smith put it, scoring becomes a secondary concern.

“I definitely think it was one of his best games, and it doesn’t have to do much with him scoring the ball,” Smith said. “We know he can score and we know he can knock down open shots. It’s more about him on the defensive end and blocking out and getting rebounds.”

As Missouri marches deeper into conference play, continuing to ride its 6-0 start but stumbling out of the gate in the SEC, Martin will continue to count on Brown for those contributions. That starts tonight at home against a South Carolina team with similar rebounding numbers to the Tigers.

“He’s hard on me, and I love it that way,” Brown said. “I wouldn’t change it. He expects the best of me at all times, and I just gotta keep trying to go hard and give him my best as much as I can.”

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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