BY ROB DEMOVSKY — Green Bay Press-Gazette
The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s BracketBusters game on Saturday at Drake won’t help its NCAA tournament chances — only winning the Horizon League tournament will get the Phoenix in — so it could be viewed as something of a blah game that only interrupts the regular-season conference race.
Not for Brennan Cougill.
For the senior forward, it means one last chance to play in his home state and a return to where his college career began.
The Sioux City, Iowa, native expects a large contingent of relatives and friends at the game in Des Moines, which is less than three hours from his hometown.
No one was happier to see the pairing when it was announced earlier this month than Cougill’s mother. A single parent who drives to almost every UWGB home game — “It’s eight and a half hours from my office to the Resch Center,” Gina Cougill said — she heard from nearly 40 friends and relatives who plan to attend the game, some of whom haven’t seen her son play in four years.
It didn’t take long for fans in Green Bay to embrace him, in part because he had an every-man look to him and in part because of how productive he was on the court. As a junior last season, he averaged 9.2 points and 7.0 rebounds per game while shooting nearly 50 percent. He showed remarkable touch for a guy his size, hitting 39.7 percent of his 3-pointers.
His career was nearly derailed this season after he ran into another academic issue. He missed four games in December because of a suspension and when he returned, he lost his starting job.
However, he has performed nearly as well coming off the bench. He ranks third on the team in scoring (9.7 pgg) and rebounding (5.7) even though his minutes have declined since his return.
His most recent outing, Sunday’s win at Youngstown State, exemplified Cougill’s role. He did a little of everything: six points, six rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots in a game that put the Phoenix (15-12 overall) into third place in the Horizon League with just two conference games remaining.
“The thing I love about Brennan Cougill is he just wants to win,” Phoenix coach Brian Wardle said. “He just wants to finish his senior year winning and on a high note. He’s been helping us do that in all the little ways. Even though his points may not be as high as they have been, he’s giving great effort on defense, great talk in the huddles, great talk on the floor and he’s always a good passer that makes our offense run better.”
One thing that hasn’t returned has been Cougill’s outside shot. His 3-point percentage has dropped to 15.4 percent. It’s even lower in conference play, at 12.0 percent. He has made just 3-of-25 3s against Horizon League teams, including just one of his last 17. Yet Wardle hasn’t given him the red light.
“I know what he’s capable of last year and even earlier this year,” Wardle said. “Once he hits one, you’ll see two, three, four drop because that’s how good of a shooter he is. If he was shooting bad shots, then we’d be concerned. But he’s getting great looks; he’s taking good shots. As long as they’re good shots, he’s got the green light.”
Maybe some home cooking and the presence of his family and friends on Saturday will be the answer.
But in reality, Green Bay is where Cougill feels most comfortable now. At his final regular-season home game on March 2 against Valparaiso, the first 1,000 fans at the Resch Center will receive a Cougill bobblehead.
“The Green Bay community has been wonderful for Brennan,” Gina Cougill said. “There’s nothing better than walking into the Resch Center, and there’s that section of guys that stand up and yell ‘Coogs’ when he comes on the floor. That is just really cool, and I know that touches Brennan. There’s a couple of families that have basically adopted him and have taken care of him when I haven’t been able to be there, and that means a lot.”
Playing in front of them used to be a regular occurrence for the 6-foot-9, 265-pound forward. Four years ago, Cougill was the pride of Iowa, winning the state’s Mr. Basketball honor (which in Iowa is given to the top high school senior) before he headed off to the highest-profile school in the state, the University of Iowa.
“That’s a big deal for an Iowa guy,” Cougill said this week. “You grow up as a Hawkeye fan in the Hawkeye state, that’s the one thing everybody wants to do.”
But after a freshman season in which he played in every game as a backup, he was declared academically ineligible and left school following a coaching change. He spent his sophomore season at a junior college before transferring to UWGB.
“It was hard because it was his dream (to play at Iowa),” Gina Cougill said. “As a mom, watching your son’s dream come to an end was not easy. But I’m a firm believer in that when one door closes, another opens. It was hard, but we relied on our faith. We struggled with some issues but got through them.”