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3tto: The transformation of Wisconsin forward Vitto Brown

Vitto Brown rarely played during his first two seasons with the Badgers. He was known more for his singing talent than his basketball ability. This March, that's all changing.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS, MO. --  Vitto Brown may very well still be known nationally for his golden pipes.

You know, the ones that have performed the national anthem at the Final Four and before multiple Kohl Center contests? Yeah, those ones.

Well, it's probably time for everyone to acknowledge that singing might only be Brown's second-best talent.

After averaging 5.4 minutes per game and taking a whopping total of zero three-pointers over his first two seasons, Brown has become a pivotal factor in Wisconsin's run to the second round of the NCAA tournament, where it faces Xavier on Sunday at 7:40 pm.

The junior forward's stone-cold three to put the Badgers ahead with under three minutes left in the opening-round game against Pittsburgh on Friday was the cap of his 11-point performance in a low-scoring contest.

For the season, Brown averages 9.7 points per game and shoots 40.5 percent from three-point range. Over the Badgers' last 13 games, however, Brown has blossomed.

In that stretch, he is the team's fourth-leading scorer with 11.7 points per game, knocking down half of his triples (26 of 52). Over Big Ten play, Brown's 41.7 three-point percentage ranks 12th.

There has to be more behind the man with the longest wingspan on the Wisconsin Badgers, right?

Brown shakes his head and laughs.

"That's about it. That's about it."

Maybe not.

So maybe he isn't secretly a philosophical scholar or binge-watcher of old sitcoms. But even in modestly denying being a renaissance man, Brown gives a glimpse into his identity: the kid likes to joke around.

It's a pretty safe bet that if Brown is talking with someone, he's enjoying a good laugh as well. But not everything with the Bowling Green, Ohio, native is a comedic matter.

Opponents beware: Vitto Brown has become a noted marksman. When the man sinks half of his last 52 threes, that's something to take seriously.

3tto Brown

The Badgers have assembled in their locker room at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, the cozy quarters made even more crammed by the throng of media present. And no matter which of those players or coaches you talk to, everybody seems to have a different answer as to why Vitto Brown started shooting more threes.

Early in the season, Brown's shot chart consisted of a majority of shots coming from within five feet of inside the three-point line. He started out the season just 2-of-16 from deep through seven games and took more than three triples in a game just once through 21 games.

Over Wisconsin's last 12 games, that has occurred nine times.

Badgers assistant coach Howard Moore says it's a mixture of opportunity and confidence. Head coach Greg Gard adds that it's part of the development process. Guard Bronson Koenig says Brown has been able to do it for a while.

As for the man himself, well, the answer becomes even more diluted.

"I actually could not tell you, man," Brown said with a laugh. "I don't know how it happened. I think I just made a couple one game and it was like, ‘Alright, I can keep shooting these.' They used to call me K.G. in high school, because [Kevin Garnett] always shoots those long twos.

"So, feet were always on the line and I never really knew where I was. Nigel [Hayes] let me know, ‘Bro, just take a step back and that's a three.' Because sometimes, I don't really know, I would just catch it wherever I caught it and shoot it.

"So I think I'm more aware now of where I'm at on the court."

Brown really began delivering in back-to-back career performances against Nebraska and at Maryland. Both wins for the Badgers, he had a then-career-high 18 points and buried all three of his triples against the Huskers on Feb. 10. Later in the week, Brown topped that performance, scoring 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting, making three triples against the No. 2 Terrapins.

In what probably isn't much of a coincidence, Brown's surge also came around right as Wisconsin started to play its best basketball of the season. The Badgers have only lost three games since that night in February.

"In the swing, you need one of your post players to have that ability to stretch the floor."

"In a way, it's huge," Moore said. "It stretches our offense quite a bit. In the swing, you need one of your post players to have that ability to stretch the floor. It allows guys like Nigel to not have to play on the perimeter the whole time. He can get in the paint and post up a little more, and same with Ethan [Happ]."

Over the seven games prior to playing Nebraska, Brown saw his minutes decrease to 16.4 per game over that stretch. Since then? 30.4 per game.

One of the few positive steps backward in sports, Brown's positioning to behind the three-point arc has been crucial for a team that lacked consistent outside shooting.

Those shots that used to come from 18 and 19 feet from the rim are now taken from just a few feet back.

"Especially with the pick-and-rolls, he was hitting a lot of deep twos," Koenig said. "But he just had to take that one step back and got comfortable with it over the past two months."

Brimming with confidence

It should make sense that Brown's confidence would be at an all-time high. After all, he is posting career-best numbers, playing significant minutes and his three with under three minutes left against Pittsburgh turned out to be the game-winner.

That level of confidence isn't even in the same neighborhood as where it was at this point last season, when Brown served as a human oxygen mask for National Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky.

"I don't even know if last year counts, to be honest," Brown said. "I wasn't really playing, so I can't say that my confidence really mattered last year. I was kind of just, especially during this time of the year, was like, ‘If I get in, just try to make a shot, just try to get a stop.'

"The whole role has completely changed. It's hard to compare these two years together."

In years past -- and even at the beginning of the current season -- Brown seemed hesitant, uncomfortable and, at times, lost on offense.

Moore didn't join the current staff until after Bo Ryan's retirement on Dec. 15 left open a position on the staff, but as the head coach at Illinois-Chicago and analyst on the Big Ten Network, he kept an eye on Brown and the Badgers. He no longer sees that same player.

"Just his confidence, I think," Moore said of the biggest difference in Brown's game. "He's understanding that it's [his] time. He's spent two years on the bench, learning, playing, trying to get minutes. And now that he's in the starting lineup, he's a junior, it's [a mindset of], ‘Okay, it's my time.'

Brown may have hit the game's biggest shot on Friday, but he is likely to understate just how important it was.

"I don't know," Brown said. "I don't really notice how big a shot is at the time. Usually, I just try to shoot it and try to make it. If it was, then that's on you guys."

Alright, fine then, Vitto. If you won't say it, then the people will. It was the biggest shot of your career.

"Graduation opens opportunity"

Moore stood in the locker room, discussing the quantity of talent that the Badgers lost from back-to-back Final Four teams.

"Graduation opens opportunity," he said.

There were plenty of minutes available for the taking coming into the season. Having lost Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Duje Dukan in the front court, much was on the shoulders of Brown and his forward counterpart Ethan Happ.

Now into the closing hours of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, Wisconsin is preparing for the Musketeers. Imagine where the Badgers would be without Brown's contributions.

Here's a hint: not still competing on a basketball floor.

"Vitto has really taken advantage of his opportunities and the position he's put himself in this year," Gard said. "He's gotten better as the year's gone on, which you like to see as a coach."

Not only would a coach like that, but teammates, as well.

"It helps our offense a lot, having a guy who can stretch the floor, who can pick and pop," Koenig said. "It forces guys to step out and guard him."

Not every night has been without blemish for Brown. There have been the poor shooting games, like the 3-of-15 performance against Oklahoma and 1-of-9 outing versus Milwaukee (though those feel like they happened years ago). There were the four turnovers against Green Bay. The scoreless game against Maryland the first time around.

That keeps things in perspective for Brown.

"It's still a team effort, regardless of who's doing good or not," he said. "That's what we try to make sure we do, be able to pick each other up when some parts of the game just aren't going well."

Dunking and Bunking

Happ, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and Brown are roommates.

"Vitto is my brother," Happ said after the Pittsburgh game. "We've been rooming together for two years now. I was proud of him."

Despite the year gap in age difference, Brown and Happ formed an instant bond. As a sophomore, Brown lived in the dorms with Happ, then a freshman.

"Usually, after your freshman year you move out of the dorms," Brown said. "I'm a year older than him and he was coming in alone at the time, he was the only scholarship recruit that we had. So I was like ‘I don't want him to have to room with some random guy,' so I decided to stay in the dorm again."

Brown wasn't without living options, either, when he and Happ chose to room together last year.

"At first it was going to be me and Bronson and some other guys, but at the end of the day, I thought this would be the best thing to get [Happ] acclimated," Brown said.

Sharpshooter and benevolent teammate? That seems to be the case, unless Happ's music selection simply becomes too repetitive.

"Ethan listens to a lot of hip-hop," Brown said. "He plays out some of it too quick for me, like five times a day and I hear it every single time."

The off-court chemistry of the two forwards has transported itself onto the court, as well.

"Definitely, definitely," Brown said. "I'm pretty much with him 12 hours out of the day. I'm seeing him all the time, and we're comfortable."

Happ, Wisconsin's best post player, has been able to create more shots for Brown by occupying two defenders at times in the post.

"It allows a guy like Vitto to float a little bit and settle into spots and find his open looks," Moore said. "He had some great situations last night where dumped the ball into Ethan, he was able to move a little bit, they stopped him, kick it out for timely threes from Vitto last night. That certainly helps your offense, for sure."

Brown and Happ also live with freshman forward Andy Van Vliet, who was declared ineligible by the NCAA in November, adding even further potential to an apartment already full of front court ability.

Shades of Brown

You have probably seen the videos or heard him live. Brown's voice belts out one of the few sounds sweeter than the net rippling on his jumper.

Brown has been a part of "Shades of Brown" since he was a young boy. Composed by his mother, father, brother, sister, cousin and Brown, the singing group has performed the national anthem before three Badgers home games.

By himself, Brown sang the anthem prior to two Red/White Scrimmages at the Kohl Center.

Most notably, however, was his performance of the anthem before the Final Four semifinal against Kentucky in 2015.

"I'd say that a lot of people think that, my first years, I was more of a singer who was on the team," Brown said.

That's fair, especially when as much time is spent on the court singing as it is playing--which makes Brown's junior year development all the more eye-catching.

"But now I think I'm more of a basketball player who can sing, too," Brown said. "I definitely would like to have basketball first before the hyphen."

So the title is now set. Vitto Brown, student-athlete. Vitto Brown, basketball player-singer.

Just as Brown finishes talking, Happ struts into the locker room and stands next to his roommate.

"Hey, Vitto," Happ says. "CBS wants you to sing ‘One Shining Moment' for them. So you should go do that."

Come on, basketball gods. We were just making so much progress on the idea of Vitto Brown, basketball player-singer. Not the other way around.