SportsPulse: With college football season in the books, we turn our focus to basketball.
USA TODAY Sports
CHICAGO — Coming out of a late December halftime, with his team comfortably winning by double figures, Villanova junior point guard Jalen Brunson preached to his teammates in a hallway huddle: “First four minutes. It’s ours.”
After two seasons as a starter in more of a sidekick role, Brunson has finally transitioned into his “natural” role: As the tone-setting leader and go-to scorer of the No. 1-ranked Wildcats (15-1, 3-1 Big East).
“This is the type of role I’m way more comfortable in — being a leader to my teammates, handling the pressure,” Brunson told USA TODAY Sports following Villanova’s 103-85 win over DePaul two weeks ago. “Sometimes it’s more about being vocal, other times it’s leading by example.”
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The leading-by-example part has come natural as well, with Brunson averaging 19.3 points and 5.2 assists a game. A top candidate for national player of the year, he is shooting nearly 60% from the field and sports a 4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
After Villanova’s convincing 89-65 defeat of Xavier on Wednesday night, an outcome that put the Wildcats back to their usual position — atop the Big East title race — Xavier coach Chris Mack offered a flattering take on why the Wildcats dismantled his similarly elite team and is so difficult to defend.
“They’re led by the best point guard in college basketball,” Mack bluntly said after the game.
In a 100-90 win over Marquette last week, Brunson had 27 points and eight assists. In ‘Nova’s lone loss this season to Butler on Dec. 30, he had 31 points and five assists. Those performances, he said, are just a product of coach Jay Wright’s system that lends itself to fluent guard play and has even allowed Brunson to have isolation post-up plays this season.
Yet it was more about the family-oriented culture Wright cultivates that drew the Chicago product to a Villanova team already loaded with guards when Brunson was recruited out of high school. Brunson said that his leadership style has taken “bits and pieces” from previous ‘Nova leaders, including last year’s leading scorer and national player of the year finalist Josh Hart and Ryan Arcidiacono, the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player when the trio won a national title in Brunson’s freshman season two years ago.
“Everyone leads differently,” said Brunson, who has aspirations of coaching someday. “I just try to take what I’ve learned from others and put that with how I naturally am.”
His teammates have been receptive of the enhanced role, and Brunson said that while they’re best friends off the court, they’re undoubtedly enemies in practices.
“It’s that drive, that competitiveness and the fact that we have so much experience, that makes me feel like, whether we’re down 20 or up 20, we have something extra,” Brunson said.
The 6-3 preseason All-American admits that while the Wildcats are taking this season with a one-game-at-a-time approach, winning another national title is “probably in the back of our minds.”
“We’ve won it once, so we’ve been to the top of the mountain. That doesn’t make us satisfied. It makes us hungrier to do it again,” Brunson said. “But honestly, we’re not going out with the mindset of trying to win (a national title). We’re trying to be the best team we can be this year. If that brings us a (title banner), then so be it. … We cannot be complacent. That has to be our mentality.”
With Hart and Kris Jenkins gone from last year’s 32-win squad, the keys to the team went to Brunson. And Wright credits his team’s early success to the new and perfectly fitting role for Brunson, which he saw as more inevitable than a part of development.
“It starts with his character,” Wright said. “He’s just an old soul. He comes to work every day, mentally prepared, physically prepared. He just has a great perspective on life. When you take that to the basketball court, he plays the same way — very intelligently, tough and very skilled.”
Brunson, whose father Rick played for Temple and later for nine seasons in the NBA, said the Philadelphia area will always be home for him. It was his father and mother, Sandra, who he believes influenced his leadership-savvy personality.
“When I was little, my parents told me to never be a follower and to be a leader,” Brunson said. “It’s paying off now.”
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