CORAL GABLES — So many games in the NCAA Tournament are won by talented, aggressive guards who take over. Bruce Brown has that ability.
He showed it in December (triple-double against South Carolina State). He showed it in January (30 points against No. 9 North Carolina). He showed it in February (winning 3-pointer at No. 18 Virginia, 25 points against No. 10 Duke).
He doesn’t expect his first March experience will be his last.
As one of the top freshmen in the ACC, college basketball’s premier conference, Brown’s pro potential is widely discussed. Since the NBA instituted its “one-and-done” rule in 2006, 97 freshmen have been drafted. But when asked for his thoughts on leaving early, Brown, 20, said he’s “not thinking about it right now.”
After the Hurricanes’ run is over, would he consider it more deeply?
“I don’t think I’m ready, to be honest,” he told The Post. “I feel like I can get a lot better. I feel there’s a lot I can do to prepare myself better to get to that level.”
“Shooting, dribbling, everything,” he said.
Brown, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound combo guard, is averaging 11.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.4 steals while playing more than 30 minutes a night. He’s a physical scorer and athletic defender who can make shots from the outside. But he sees the holes in his game.
His loose handle can get him into trouble; he averages 2.1 turnovers, but has coughed it up four or more times in seven of 32 games. “That’s one big thing I need to work on,” he said. Ball-handling will be a major focus of his offseason training.
Last year, he worked mostly on his shooting, “because I thought my handle was OK,” he said. “My jump shot was not where it needed to be at the start of the season. Now I have confidence in it.”
That feeling was hard-won. In November, the newcomer missed nine of the first 10 shots he took from beyond the arc. Over his first 10 games, he was 5-of-24 on 3-pointers. But continued work with UM’s coaches helped him improve. In ACC games, he made them at a 40 percent clip. His percentage ranked just outside the top 10 among conference players.
“Everything,” he said, agreeing with a reporter who noted he could become a more dominant scorer. “I’ve got to get stronger. I didn’t rebound well the last couple games. That’s something I need to work on, too.”
His coaches are more than happy to help.
“It takes a level of humility to understand where you’re at, what you’re good at, what you need to improve upon, what’s your identity as a player,” UM assistant coach Chris Caputo said. “What’s unique about Bruce is there’s not a lot of guys who would put up 30 against Carolina and 25 against Duke and spend most of their time thinking about what they could be better at. There would be a lot of people trying to live off that, rather than self-examine.”
That will only help Miami (21-11), whose first-round matchup with Michigan State tips off around 9:20 p.m. Friday, achieve greater things.
In its 2018 mock draft, which was updated Tuesday, DraftExpress.com rates Brown as the No. 15 player. That’s two spots behind guard Lonnie Walker, Miami’s top incoming recruit, who is currently in high school but could leave after one season at UM. If DraftExpress’ faraway projections came true, Brown and Walker would become the highest-drafted Hurricanes since Hall of Famer Rick Barry (second overall in 1966). UM’s most recent first-rounder, Shane Larkin, went 18th in 2014.
Though Miami will lose heart-and-soul seniors Davon Reed and Kamari Murphy, the 2017-18 Hurricanes should be even better with the development of Brown, freshman forward Dewan Huell (a former McDonald’s All-American) and several other young players, plus a Walker-led recruiting class considered UM’s best ever. Brown could be the go-to player on a team expected to make major noise.
If Brown wants to, he can test the water. Last year, the NBA instituted a rule that allows underclassmen to declare for the draft and retain their NCAA eligibility by withdrawing before the draft. They can do so in multiple seasons, and can participate in the league’s scouting combine and work out for NBA teams.
That doesn’t interest him now, though, not with a trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma and a tough Midwest Region ahead.
“Right now we’re just focusing on defense in practice,” Brown said. “When we have fun on the court, that’s when we play our best basketball. That’s another thing we need focus on in this run.
“We all think we need to share the ball more. Our defense is great … It’s defense to offense. We get out in transition, we get turnovers and easy points in transition. … When we defend, we win.”
He’s weathered a few dramatic games so far in his brief college career, but he hadn’t been through a Selection Sunday as a Hurricane. As he waited for his team’s matchup to flash across the big-screen TV at the on-campus party, he admitted, he was jittery.
“I don’t know why,” he said. “I knew we were in the tournament, but I was nervous for some reason.”
Those nerves won’t be around for long. Brown will stay a while.