SCAPEGOAT IS UCONN'S X-FACTOR
By Allen Wilson
Taliek Brown isn't as physically gifted as All-American center Emeka Okafor or explosive two-guard Ben Gordon. He often is overshadowed by sophomore swingman Rashad Anderson and freshmen forwards Josh Boone and Charlie Villanueva.
Brown rarely gets much attention for anything he does. But the 6-foot-1 senior point guard may hold the key to Connecticut's bid for a national championship.
College basketball is a game governed by guards. That is especially true in the NCAA Tournament, in which a game and season hang on every possession.
That's why you have to like the Huskies' chances.
Though not a great scorer (only six points per game), Brown is the facilitator of UConn's formidable offense. He is exceptional in pushing the ball up the court and creating scoring opportunities for teammates with his penetration off the dribble.
In addition to being the school's all-time assist leader, Brown holds the career record for steals.
Brown's skills were on full display Thursday night. In one of his most complete performances of the season, he collected 14 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in UConn's 70-53 first-round victory over Vermont in HSBC Arena.
"He's the engine that keeps us going," Okafor said Friday. "He's our leader. Basically, he sets the pace of the game. The question is, 'All right, can we keep up with Taliek today?' When you have a player like that, you're bound to be successful."
Brown started college four years ago with the expectation of following in the footsteps of other New York City playmakers such as Kenny Anderson and Stephon Marbury.
But he hasn't been appreciated by some Huskies faithful the way point guards Khalid El-Amin, Ricky Moore and Tate George were.
Since his first game, Brown's been the target of harsh criticism on fan Web sites. He's been ripped for his decision-making and shooting, particularly at the free-throw line.
He's been blamed for UConn not reaching the Final Four since winning it all in 1999.
Brown isn't the prettiest point guard in college basketball. He's only a career 43.8 percent shooter (57.5 percent from the foul line), and sometimes his passes miss their mark.
But Brown has been a part of two Big East regular-season and tournament championships, and he's playing in the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year. He also has been a part of 98 victories, including 28 this season.
He can add to that total when the Huskies meet DePaul in the second round tonight.
"I just took all the negative criticism and just turned it into positive things," said Brown, who averages 6.7 assists per game. "I just kept working hard and trying to get better every year.
"I know what I could do on the floor, so I just kept working and tried to pay (the criticism) no mind." .
UConn coach Jim Calhoun often has found himself having to defend Brown."
It's hard to understand why he has to.
"What the fans don't really do is understand what he is. They always talk about what he isn't," Calhoun said. "What he is, is a winner. What he is, is an incredible competitor. You can ask anybody who's had to play against him.
"His energy, his toughness, all those things that you can't get your team to be, he is."
Brown's skin has grown much thicker over the past four seasons, which is why he can kid about the digital attacks.
"I've got a question," he asked the UConn writers after his final home game. "With me gone, who are they going to talk about in the chat rooms?"
Maybe the critics did him a favor, for they helped stoke his competitive fires.
Success is the greatest revenge, and he could have the ultimate payback if the Huskies win the national championship.
"Oh, definitely," Brown said with a wide smile. "I think that would shut everybody up."