MANHATTAN — Early in his career, when Barry Brown first started showing up at the Ice Family Basketball Center at all hours, he was just trying to make a good impression.
“Coaches are going to play who they’re comfortable with,” said Brown, Kansas State’s all-Big 12 senior guard. “If they see someone in the gym a lot, it’s just natural for them to want to play them because they trust them.”
That was then.
Now that he’s staring at his final season at K-State with a team picked by many to challenge for a Big 12 championship and perhaps even make a deep NCAA Tournament run, the stakes are a little higher.
“This year it’s just been, this is my last year in this gym,” Brown said. “Get to the gym as much as possible. That’s really what I’ve been thinking about.”
The countless hours on his own, honing his skills, clearly have paid dividends for the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Brown, who last year averaged 15.9 points, 3.2 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.8 steals in leading K-State on its NCAA run to the Elite Eight. Not only was he a second-team all-conference pick and a member of the league’s all-defense team, but he begins his senior year as a preseason all-Big 12 first-team selection.
His leadership and his work ethic also have helped transform the K-State basketball culture. Just ask fellow senior Dean Wade, the lone returning member of the all-Big 12 first team and the conference preseason player of the year.
“I don’t even know how to describe it,” Wade said of Brown’s offseason dedication. “He’s been in the gym two hours, three hours a day, twice a day. Just stuff like that, coming in and working on his craft, and he’s doing just an unbelievable job being a leader, showing the work ethic and being here all the time.
“He’s a gym rat, he’s crushing it in the weight room and he’s going hard every day. It’s nice to have that leadership around where the young guys know what to do.”
Not all of Brown’s time at the gym is spent on the court. He also makes sure to check in regularly with coach Bruce Weber, the man he initially wanted to impress, or the assistants.
“He’s a hooper. He loves it; he wants to be around us,” Weber said. “He was there this morning, he’s there every morning. He’s in with the coaches talking. Sometimes it’s just chatter, but he just feels comfortable with being there.”
But mostly he’s working on his game.
“That’s kind of my mantra this year,” Brown said. “It’s like, ‘You know you’re kind of tired, you’re bruised up, you’re sleepy, you want to go to bed — it’s your last year, so you might as well be at the gym.’ ”
He’s even wearing a shot tracker, a new gadget that records every shot a player takes during the course of a week, regardless what time of day or night.
“Barry has some weeks where he’s 3,500 to 4,000 shots a week,” Weber said. “That’s unbelievable, and he wants to be good.
“Now everybody’s like — because it’s on the board — ‘Can I compete with Barry? Can I get to 3,000,’ or whatever.”
Junior guard Xavier Sneed admits that in trying to emulate Brown’s work habits, he has seen the entire team fall into line.
“He’s the gym termite,” Sneed said with a smile. “He eats the wood, along with the rest of us. It motivates me to just love being here as much as he does and it goes on down the line, so everyone is in here. You come in here some nights and just try to be in here alone, and there’s three-four guys in the gym with you.”
Weber credits his three seniors — Brown, Wade and guard Kamau Stokes — with raising the bar for the rest of the team. But nobody ever questions who the ringleader is.
“Rodney (McGruder) was an unbelievable leader and I’ve had others through the years, but Barry might take the tops,” Weber said. “It started when Kam got hurt last year after Texas Tech.
“He said, ‘We’re practicing tomorrow, Coach, whether you guys can be there or not.’ That showed his determination and leadership, and he just said, ‘This team’s not failing.’ ”
Sure enough, the Wildcats reeled off three straight victories, then went from a bubble team to a certain NCAA qualifier by beating Baylor in the regular-season finale and winning their Big 12 Tournament opener over TCU in overtime.
In the NCAA Tournament, the Cats knocked off Creighton, Maryland-Baltimore County and Kentucky before falling to Loyola-Chicago to finish the season at 25-12.
Brown submitted his name for the NBA draft following the season, but didn’t sign with an agent, opening the door for him to return to the team. He insists that, while embracing the experience, he had no intention of leaving.
“I was always going to come back,” he said. “I knew I didn’t want to be done here and I had another year to prove myself.
“I wanted to just leave a legacy here with the guys that I grew up with and kind of built this team a little bit better. I knew I always wanted to come back and compete for a championship.”