LEXINGTON, Ky. If there is a pivot point on which Davidson's NCAA tournament game with Marquette will turn Thursday, I believe it will be De'Mon Brooks.
Specifically, it will be the way Davidson's standout junior forward does against Marquette's ferocious front line, which has two players who outweigh him by 50 to 70 pounds. Marquette plays basketball the way older brothers everywhere try to play against younger brothers – bang it inside.
Louisville did the same thing in the 2012 NCAA tournament against Davidson. The Cardinals took only five 3-point shots, making just one. Louisville drove the ball inside, threw it inside and won it inside 69-62.
That game was one of Brooks' worst at Davidson. He got in foul trouble early, played only 19 minutes, shot 1-for-7 from the field and scored just five points.
“I was just real anxious and over-excited,” Brooks said Wednesday. “Now I know how this goes. I know how to let the game come to me, even a big game like this one. I feel like it's different.”
For No..14 seed Davidson to pull off a first-round upset against No..3 Marquette, the Wildcats need Brooks and Jake Cohen to hold their own in the paint.
Marquette “can't shoot,” as the team's own coach said. But the Golden Eagles were the best rebounding team in the Big East and tied for the conference regular-season championship at 14-4 with Louisville and Georgetown.
Last season Cohen and Brooks shared Southern Conference Player of the Year honors. This season Cohen was consistently superb and won the award on his own.
Brooks had some inconsistent patches.
“I feel like I was just rushing it,” he said. “No one's expectations are higher than my own. Probably at the beginning of the season I was putting a little bit too much pressure on myself to do well.”
In one four-game Southern Conference stretch in February, Brooks had three games where he didn't reach eight points. In the last part of the regular season, he found his groove. In the Southern Conference, Brooks was the best player on the floor – scoring 24 points and grabbing eight rebounds in the final as Davidson won its 17th straight game.
Davidson coach Bob McKillop said after that game: “This was the De'Mon of last year. … Sometimes when you have five scorers in the game, as we do, it's a difficult task to find your comfort level, to find your rhythm and he's struggled to find it. … But he never missed a beat with his team orientation. He never cried ‘Woe is me.'.”
McKillop also said Brooks – a Charlottean who went to Hopewell High and was modestly recruited – had such a good year as a sophomore in 2011-12 that things changed.
“He had people whispering in his ear and telling him how great he was or what he needed to accomplish,” McKillop said at Rupp Arena. “… A lot of those people will measure that based upon statistics and he would hear: ‘Well, geez, he wasn't getting as many points as he did in his previous season. What's wrong?'.”
“Never once did he step outside of the role that was defined for him, but he was constantly fighting those demons.”
Brooks' mother has also been fighting. She was recently hospitalized with undisclosed health issues. McKillop said he was proud that Brooks maintained his focus throughout that hospitalization.
Brooks said his mother is now out of the hospital and back at home but that she would not be traveling to Kentucky for the NCAA tournament.
At 6-foot-7 and 227 pounds, Brooks will be trying to get around Marquette's Chris Otule (6-11, 275) and Davante Gardner (6-8, 290). Unlike the rest of the Davidson rotation, Brooks is not a good 3-point shooter (22 percent).
He instead scores with his variety of old-school post moves. Although he shoots jumpers left-handed, Brooks writes right-handed and is skilled with either hand in the paint.
For Brooks, this is his chance at NCAA redemption – a chance he well knows many college players never get.
“People keep telling me to enjoy it,” Brooks said with a laugh. “And I'm going to. It's an opportunity that only comes around once – well, twice.”