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Tournament a good diversion for Brett Brown

AS A GROUP of reporters surrounded Brett Brown close to two hours before his team lost for the 20th time in the past 22 games and 59th time in 68 games, roars of excitement came from a back room at the Wells Fargo Center, adjacent to the 76ers' locker room.

AS A GROUP of reporters surrounded Brett Brown close to two hours before his team lost for the 20th time in the past 22 games and 59th time in 68 games, roars of excitement came from a back room at the Wells Fargo Center, adjacent to the 76ers' locker room.

"Gotta love the tournament," Brown said, smiling.

Turns out the day's biggest upset, Yale's 79-75 decision over Baylor, was playing out the final seconds. For the most part, it was the most excitement registered in the building on a night when the Sixers generally seemed more interested in checking their brackets than playing the Wizards, save for a late rally that made the final 99-94.

"Watching all of the games and the spirit of the tournament and the excitement of trying to figure out who we might draft comes into play, but mostly I just love the time of year," Brown said. "I love the event. It's a great time of year for basketball fans. You pay attention a little bit when people can deliver on a big stage in big games. How could you not pay attention and be impressed with that?"

Call it an infusion of sanity during a season that could have drained every last bit of it out of the Sixers' third-year coach - from the avalanche of losses to injuries to inconsistent play to Brown questioning his own coaching at times.

No period during this dreadful season, or maybe any in Brown's three years here, have been as bad as the current one-month stretch. In the 15 games since the All-Star break, the Sixers have allowed an average of 115.3 points a game, but, more concerning, have seemed generally uninterested in even attempting to offer resistance.

At times Thursday against the Wizards, just getting down the floor seemed a chore greeted with all the excitement of a teenager being asked to put out the trash.

Coming back after an eight-day layoff carrying an 8-45 record, it wouldn't be realistic to think the Sixers would play out the final 29 games with all the vim and vigor of a team fighting for a playoff spot. Still, so many of the players who make up the roster are playing for something even more important - their careers.

Think about it. Though he's out with a torn meniscus that still hasn't been repaired, for some reason, Jahlil Okafor has a career in the league. Same goes for Nerlens Noel. Jerami Grant has played himself into a reliable sub, probably for some years to come, and Robert Covington has a legitimate skill set with his shooting. After that? Would it be shocking if many of the others found themselves out of the league either next season or the year after? Sure, some could latch on or bounce around for a bit, no guarantees. That's why these finish-out-the-season games are much more important than many of these players think, or are showing.

"I don't feel like we've come out with the sting that I expected after the All-Star break," Brown said. "We want to play longer (stretches during games). I think that what has caught me off guard is we don't play as long as we need to play . . . We remind everybody - coaching staff, players - that there is no level of entitlement going on that would make somebody feel like this is just sort of anybody's day-to-day life where you get the opportunity to play in an NBA game. So anytime I can wind them up, understand the lay of the land as it sort of relays to them, you do remind them of that. And I don't believe we've come out, since the All-Star break, with the sting that I want."

Brown can see why his team has failed so miserably on defense. You can hear him bark directives to get back on defense; to rotate to shooters; to get over a pick on one guard and under on another. Still, trying to figure out, and cure, why someone has mentally checked out isn't a skill many coaches have mastered.

"I don't know why, more from a mental approach than from a physical approach," Brown said. "We need to improve our perimeter defenders. All of our guys. We talk freely among Nik Stauskas and Robert and Hollis (Thompson) and Isaiah (Canaan), our perimeter. The face to our defense needs to improve. We want to get Nerlens going again. I don't feel like he has played the way that we want him to and that he wants to play after the All-Star break. I think all those things come to my mind. I'm always challenging Ish (Smith) to keep the game in front of him and play defense. We get his speed. We need more. That's my job. It's not belittling anybody, it's keeping it real. It's reminding everybody that if we're to build this program, in my opinion, it needs to be done through defense. I haven't waivered from that since everybody met me.

"Last year we moved up to 12 (in defensive rating). I was proud of that group. This year we have fallen backwards. I don't think the individual pieces are as strong. They need to get stronger. It's a part of their own growth. That's my job to help them do that."

Fault Brown as many ways as you see fit. It's understandable. But if there is one area of his coaching that needs to be praised, it's his relentless passion.

How that passion has left his players, particularly the ones still auditioning for jobs in the world's greatest basketball league, is sort of mind-baffling. And maybe why the NCAA Tournament brings the coach so much joy this year.