As Illinois game looms, Ohio State's Gene Brown enjoys climb to starter's role

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

Hearing your name over the speakers hits a little bit harder at home.

After missing a pair of games due to a turf toe injury on his left foot, Ohio State sophomore wing Gene Brown III returned to the lineup in dramatic fashion. When the Buckeyes tipped off at Michigan on Feb. 12, Brown wasn’t only active for the game but was also in the starting lineup for the first time in his collegiate career. The first time he heard his name called out, it came from Crisler Center public-address announcer Anthony Bellino.

His laconic style toward opposing players, much less Buckeyes, didn’t quite compare to three days later when Value City Arena’s Matt Leininger boomed out Brown’s name as Ohio State hosted Minnesota.

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“Yeah, it was (more special), with the crowd and everything,” Brown said. “That elongated, ‘Eugene.’ That made it more special.”

Words don’t do the audio justice, but suffice to say Leininger’s delivery had a little extra power to it. It was a fitting payoff for a player whose steady development has elevated him from the bench of the bench as a freshman to a key player averaging 25.8 minutes during his last four games, all starts. Labeled as a “3 and D” guy whose length and athleticism make him a prized player on the defensive end of the court, Brown has started to add to his repertoire while climbing into a bigger role.

Monday, in Ohio State’s 80-69 overtime win against Indiana, Brown had 10 points, six rebounds, three steals and two blocks in a career-high 29:04. Wednesday, Brown said he was more concerned with making an impact throughout the game than being a starter.

“It’s one of the things we’ve always loved about Gene,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “He comes from a coaching family. His dad, they’re very much a basketball family. They’ve been around it and understand it and probably heard his dad talk about the lack of importance in starting and it’s about how you finish and the trust you build with the coaches. He gets all that. It speaks to his maturity overall.”

Brown said he’s had to physically adjust to going from averaging 12.1 minutes during his first 14 games this season to leaping into a bigger role right after coming off injury. After averaging 1.2 points as a freshman and 3.4 through his first 14 games, Brown is averaging 4.0 points during his four starts while remaining a key defensive weapon.

“Coach told me he wanted me to become a more efficient shooter to get more playing time and my defense and everything,” Brown said. “Me not playing at the Rutgers game, they had a lot of like-size guys. The Michigan game, that was a chance for me to use my versatility on the defensive end. I think that’s how I got the starting role.”

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His 6-6, 195-pound frame will be tested anew Thursday night at No. 15 Illinois.

Ohio State looks to contain Kofi Cockburn again

Listed at 7-0, 285 pounds, Illinois center Kofi Cockburn is putting together another dominating season for the Illini. The third-year big man is averaging 21.7 points and 11.2 rebounds per game and is second in the nation with nine games of at least 20 points and 10 rebounds.

His list of accomplishments is as impressive as his physical presence, but historically he’s not done much against the Buckeyes. In four games against Ohio State, Cockburn has averaged 12.3 points and 7.3 rebounds. Last season, he had a double-double with 15 points and a game-high 11 rebounds in Ohio State’s win at the State Farm Center and scored a career-high 16 points in Illinois’ Big Ten tournament title game win.

“He’s obviously a tremendous player and he’s a tremendous finisher around the basket, rim-rummer, all those things,” Holtmann said. “He creates so much help situations. We’ve probably done a good job with some of our positioning against him. You’re trying to keep a body on him as much as possible. All in all, he’s a guy (who) he’s going to get some of his and you try as much as possible just to make him work.”

Aside from Cockburn, Holtmann pointed to the production of fifth-year guard Trent Frazier and Utah transfer Alfonso Plummer as particularly impactful.

“You’ve got a five-year starter in Trent Frazier,” Holtmann said. “He’s as key to them as anything. Plummer’s really important as well. That was a really impactful transfer for them. They can really shoot it cross the board. They’re very old, and obviously Kofi anchors things. There’s a lot of really good teams in our league and they’re right there for sure.”

Plummer is shooting 39.2% (74 for 189) from 3-point range and is second in scoring at 14.7 points per game, while Frazier is close behind at 12.4 points per game. This is the only meeting between the two teams during the regular season this year.

“You’d love to be able to have a league where you could play everybody twice,” Holtmann said. “I’m a fan of those kind of situations. With a league this big, you can’t do it and I understand it, but I’d love to do traditional home-and-homes. All in all, you look at it as certainly a great challenge and a great opportunity.”

Buckeyes mostly healthy for Illini game

On his Tuesday radio show, Holtmann mentioned that a key member of the team was dealing with an illness but persevered through the Indiana game Monday night. Wednesday, he declined again to specify which player had been sick but said the team’s injury report is otherwise unchanged.

“We’ve got some guys that have felt a little bit under the weather the last couple days but all in all no significant change to our injury report as of now,” he said. “I’d rather keep (who was sick) between us, but he did a great job battling through it. It didn’t really hit him until right before tip, honestly. He told me about it in the midst of the game. Hopefully he’ll continue to get his energy back where it needs to.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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