By Chris Whitaker
The Americus Times-Recorder
AMERICUS — Phillip Brown was at every Georgia Southwestern home basketball game last season.
But instead of sitting on the bench, he was a spectator.
Now everyone has their eyes on him.
Brown, a two-time Peach Belt Player of the Week, will lead the 18th-ranked Hurricanes into a top 20 matchup Thursday when they travel to No. 3 Augusta State in a showdown for the top spot in the conference.
"Rankings go out the window as soon as we both step on the court," said Brown. "It will be our team versus their team. We will give each other our best shot."
Brown is one of the top players in the conference, leading it in rebounds (10.4), ranking third in scoring (16.3), second in field-goal percentage (65.8) and fourth in blocks (27). And let's not forget six double-doubles in his last nine games.
Basketball, however, wasn't in Brown's mind when he transferred from the Air Force Academy last season with the help of coach Mike Leeder. When he stepped on campus, Brown wasn't sure if he would play for the Hurricanes. After being All-Region and honorable mention All-State at Eagles Landing Christian Academy, Brown played in three games in his two seasons with the Falcons.
And the fact his grades dropped, Brown found himself in a tough situation.
"I had played so little at Air Force over those two years, I kind of fell out of love with it," he said. "Air Force has a great academic reputation. It was ranked by Forbes No. 8 in the country, and the basketball team was ranked 11th in the country. I didn't have the grades, so I went back home (Jonesboro) for a little bit and started looking at schools."
He chose GSW to help get some of his core classes out of the way because he does have plans to return to Air Force after graduating. And after watching the Hurricanes play last season and scrimmaging with them in "open gym," Brown wanted another shot on the hardwood.
"I felt I was close to graduating from here with my classes that would transfer (back to Air Force)," said Brown, who will graduate in May with a degree in psychology. "I would still have another year to play, so I thought I might as well stay here another year. They got in all those transfers and returning players like Evan (Mobley) and Dannie (Hunt). I knew they had a good nucleus of players, and I thought I'd like to be a part of that to make a push."
Brown has been the centerpiece for the Hurricanes' start. At 13-3 overall and 6-1 in conference play — with their only blemish in PBC play being a 75-72 overtime loss to USC Aiken — Leeder said his return to basketball has been quicker than he anticipated.
"He's a tremendous athlete, and he's been blessed with a lot of athletic gifts," he said. "It's effortless with what he does athletically. Phillip has been incredibly motivated to get back into game shape. It's hard to do when you go a couple of years without playing. He has an internal motor to get back to a high level of play. He's as good as I've ever had, and I've been doing this for 22 years."
Brown has scored in double figures in all but one game, and he has shot over 50 percent from the floor in all but three. Possibly his best game of the season came on Saturday when he had 21 points on 9 of 11 shooting to go with 15 rebounds in a 66-58 win at Columbus State.
Mobley has run the team the past three years at the point, and he's all smiles talking about the big man who stands 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds.
"Phillip, he's one of a kind," said Mobley. "I never played with anyone that has the type of athleticism he has, the type of ability he has. He brings a lot of energy, and he is the one that gets us going and cranked ready to play. For him to be a two-time player of the week, he doesn't care about that. He cares about us winning and that only. It's fun to play with someone like Phillip."
That energy has made the crowd anticipate what Brown might do next.
"I like to bring a lot of energy to my teammates and quick, whether that be a dunk or a block," said Brown. "Those are the two most exciting plays you get."
Brown is the center of attention with his teammates, too. Always joking around, Leeder said the excitement revolves around him on trips.
"He's popular with all the guys," he said. "When Phillip is awake, the van is talkative. He's definitely the guy that everything revolves around here. His personality comes through and is dominant. They don't look at him as only a really good player, but a really good teammate. The guys respect his work ethic."
Brown takes little credit for his success, especially in the paint. Assistant coach Stephen Cox helped Brown with his footwork and post moves, and he said his teammates put him in situations to make plays.
"My teammates is the key," he said. "Everybody on the court is able to score, and everybody has to be man to man covered. No team can come down and double on me. My teammates put me in position get an easy basket. As I score, that takes more pressure off them, and when they score, it takes more pressure off of me.
"Honestly, it's crazy to me (to be a two-time player of the week). It's amazing. I don't know how to describe it. All of this is still kind of surreal to me. It's happening so quickly. Last year this time I wasn't doing anything but going to class and shooting ball occasionally."
When Brown has been double-teamed, he's made opponents pay for the most part. He's had six games of at least three assists, and the Jaguars plan on taking him out of the game early tonight.
"They are probably the best team in the league in double-teaming the post," said Leeder. "Phillip has to understand the double- and triple-teams will be coming right away, and he has to make a good decision quickly. He's done a great job passing out of a double team."
Hunt has been Brown's challenger in practice, helping him get stronger in the post every day.
"It's not very fun, especially when I'm a little bit undersized," said Hunt. "He looks like a slim player, but he has a little weight on him. He has extra strength down there and a lot more post moves. It's a good battle every day in practice, and I like to be the one to challenge him and give him a lot of hard work to be prepared and successful in games. As long as we have a player like him of that type of physical ability and mental ability, we'll be successful."
Brown has proven he can be successful with hard work, but the job is not done yet — for him and his team.
"We're not satisfied yet," he said. "This is all great, but the final result we want is a conference championship and after that, a national championship. We want to keep moving up in the polls, keep beating teams and keep the win streak going."