HOUSTON –- Villanova’s Final Four hopes rest largely in the hands of a teenager who was in high school a year ago and has reached double figures in scoring only twice since late February.
Jalen Brunson, a senior last year at Adlai Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, a true freshman at Villanova this year, starts at point guard for a team that is 33-5, spent three weeks as the No. 1 team in the country and faces Oklahoma Saturday in an NCAA Tournament national semifinal.
Brunson is 19 years old. He also might be the calmest guy on the court Saturday night.
Brunson carries with him not just terrific talent and skill but a poise and calmness that’s unusual in anybody playing on this level. Much less a true freshman.
“I don’t know how and why I’m so poised,” Brunson said. “It’s just something that’s just grown on me. Keeping the same attitude when things aren’t going your way. I think it’s just a mindset I’ve just had for a while.”
Brunson, whose dad, Rick Brunson, played at Temple and spent nine years in the NBA, clearly taught his son well.
“My dad always told me you can only be nervous when you’re unprepared, and I prepare myself as much as I can,” Brunson said. “I try to work on my game as much as I can, work on my shot as much as I can. Always being ready. Not having to get in shape, not having to get ready, always staying ready. It’s just something I’ve had for a while now.”
Brunson said he felt a little worn down late in the regular season. He played only nine minutes in the Big East title game loss to Seton Hall — mainly because coach Jay Wright was going big against the Pirates — but has rebounded with a quietly terrific NCAA Tournament.
Brunson has made 12 of 25 shots, six of 15 threes and all four of his foul shots to go with nine assists, eight rebounds and — most importantly — just five turnovers in 96 minutes on the court in the Wildcats’ wins over UNC-Asheville, Iowa, Miami and top-ranked Kansas.
‘Nova faces Oklahoma at 6:09 p.m. EST Saturday at NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans (see tale of the tape).
“Honestly, he plays like a 35-year-old man,” Wright said. “He’s got an old-school game, like his dad. And he’s approached it like a 10-year pro. As a freshman, you can be talented but not do those little things. He just does it like a vet.
“Next year he's going to have to take over a lot more. This year he's got to fit in. He's done an amazing job of that. I think it's really a key to our run in this tournament, his ability to fit in and still be effective.”
The most impressive thing Brunson has done is morph from an explosive scorer into a facilitator.
He was a two-time Illinois Player of the Year at Stevenson, just outside Chicago, and averaged 23.3 points last year.
Brunson had some big scoring days this year — notably 25 points against his dad’s alma mater and 22 against Penn. But on a team with Kris Jenkins, Josh Hart, Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu, Brunson knows he doesn’t need to score.
In the win over Kansas, Brunson scored seven points in the first half, then didn’t even take a shot in the second half.
"It hasn’t been easy for him, but he's handled it incredibly well,” Wright said. “In high school, he was so dominant. He had the ball in his hands all the time. He’s had to play second fiddle, to all these guys.
“He’s always been the top guy. Now you're not making a game plan about getting him the ball. But he's never complained.”
Brunson said it’s been an easy transition and that his role hasn’t really changed from high school to college.
He was asked to make the right decision in high school, and he’s asked to make the right decision at 'Nova.
“It was definitely easy just knowing that I just have to make the right play at the right time,” he said. “In high school, a lot of those plays were to score. Here, a lot of the plays are to be a good teammate and a good facilitator and also be aggressive at the same time.
“There’s times my team needs me to score, there are times my team needs me to pass the ball. I’m just doing whatever my team needs.”
After earning prep All-America honors and MVP of the Under-19 world championships in Greece, Brunson was a huge recruit for Wright.
He’ll be even more important next year, after Arcidiacono graduates.
But his ability to unselfishly change from high school superstar to the fifth-leading scorer on a Final Four team has been a key to Villanova’s postseason.
“Jalen's ability to come in as a big-time player, hear all the hype, win the MVP of the preseason NIT, then learn through the year that his value to the team is not being the MVP … His value to the team is fitting in," Wright said.
“It's hard for a McDonald's All-American to do that. I think that's a credit to his parents, to his dad, who is really a basketball guy, and to his mom, who is very, very bright and humble.”
Brunson is averaging 9.8 points, 2.6 assists and 1.8 rebounds and shooting 39 percent from three.
The numbers are solid but unspectacular. Just like Brunson’s game.
“You want to seize the moment right now,” he said. “There’s no guarantees. It’s so hard to make a Final Four. For me to make it my first year, I’m just so blessed.
“I have great teammates and a coaching staff that knows how to bring out the best in us.”
Villanova is ranked 14th in Division I in assist/turnover ratio, and Arcidiacono and Brunson are the main reason why.
Neither has committed more than two turnovers in a game since mid-February. Which is crazy considering they’re the primary ball-handlers on a team facing so many outstanding opponents.
“He just has so much poise, and he’s played in so many big-time games,” Arcidiacono said. “Especially growing up with his dad. I’m sure his dad was really hard on him, playing in the NBA. It shows he’s a big-time player and won’t be rattled by any situation.”
Much has been written this week of the friendship between Arcidiacono and Brunson, his roommate on the road and really his clone on the court (see story).
Arcidiacono was a once-in-a-lifetime player for Villanova. And Brunson is his mirror image.
“They’re just so close and so similar and Jalen is as unselfish and old-school as Arch,” Wright said.
“We’re very fortunate. Definitely. You see it. Nothing phases him. It’s been a big part of the season. We’re not starting a freshman. And Mikal Bridges is the same way.
“It says freshman on the roster, but they’re not playing that way or acting that way.”