Chris Lykes had himself a night against Florida State. The highly touted Freshmen put up 18 as he helped the ‘Canes earn their win over the rival Florida State Seminoles in a huge ACC matchup. Lykes is in the spotlight after his career high and rightfully so. Without Lykes, the ‘Canes do not leave Sunday with a W, plain and simple. But there was also another season-high posted on Sunday which is being almost completely overlooked.
After struggling throughout much of the season, Bruce Brown Jr. scored a game-high and season-high 23 in the win over FSU. Perhaps the performance is being overlooked because this is what is expected of Brown. Even in a season that has seen him battle injuries and off nights, it is well known that Brown is one of the best players in the country, and 23 points might not turn many heads. But this was a great sign for ‘Canes fans who watched Brown’s finest scoring performance of the season, which could not have come at a more important time.
The ‘Canes looked flat out terrible on Wednesday when they traveled to Atlanta to take on the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. As a team the ‘Canes shot just 37.5% from the field and turned the ball over 18 times. 18! The only player to score in double figures was Dewuan Huell who put up 13. It was an ugly loss to a far inferior conference opponent who the ‘Canes won’t get a chance at redemption against unless they square off in the conference tournament. In the loss, Bruce Brown had just 9 points on 4-12 shooting and 4 turnovers. When the rest of team is struggling and needs a pick me up the ‘Canes need Brown to step up and take over. On Wednesday night he didn’t. On Sunday night he did.
Against FSU Brown was more selective with his shots, going 5-8 from the floor, and his aggressiveness helped him get to the line a season high 14 times. This is the same guy who didn’t go to the line once against Georgia Tech. And it wasn’t just about going to the line, it was about knocking the shots down as well. Brown made 12 of his 14 attempts, and that was a key reason the ‘Canes were able to hold off the 24th ranked ‘Noles.
The ‘Canes are obviously not in trouble, with only two losses on their record, and two wins over top 25 opponents, but they are also not without their flaws. Both losses for the ‘Canes have come against opponents that they should have been able to handle easily. The unfortunate truth is that the ‘Canes just aren’t the same team away from home that they are in the Watsco Center. Even in the wins the ‘Canes haven’t always looked good (I’m looking at you La Salle), and in the ACC there is no such thing as an easy road game. The ‘Canes are going to need a spark as they get into the meat of their ACC schedule and that spark needs to be their star.
The entire rotation for the ‘Canes has been playing well all season. Dewan Huell has been a beast, averaging 13.9 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, up from 5.8 and 3.1 a year ago. Lykes, Netwon, Walker, DJ, Amp, and Izundu have all had games where they shined brightest and helped lead the ‘Canes to victory. But if the ‘Canes plan on making a deep run in March, then it is all going to start with more consistent play from Brown. If Sunday night was any indication, Brown plays best when the lights shine brightest, a good thing considering the very difficult ACC games remaining.
Saturday the ‘Canes travel to Clemson to take on the 19th ranked Clemson Tigers. Maybe Chris Lykes will have another astounding game, or maybe Dewuan Huell will come through like he has done so many times. Maybe it will be someone else who steps up and takes the reigns, in what is sure to be a close contest. But for me it seems there is really only way that the ‘Canes are going to be able to consistently beat tough ACC opponents on the road: consistent play from Bruce Brown.
Saturday will be one of many tests to come, and the key will be Bruce Brown.