Sports Journalism Blog

By Cameron Stewart |@ThatManCam

Sports Capital Journalism Program

HOUSTON — For many McDonald’s All-Americans, being handed the keys to a program from the moment they arrive on campus is a given.

The Villanova Wildcats are fortunate that freshman guard Jalen Brunson isn’t like most McDonald’s All-Americans.

Two of Villanova’s three leading scorers from last season, guards Ryan Arcidiacono and Josh Hart, returned while the incoming Brunson was simply too talented to be left out.

The highly-touted freshman and the duo of upperclassmen guards would all have to sacrifice to make things mesh and for this Villanova team to fulfill its potential.

For Brunson, that wouldn’t be a problem.

“Jalen’s ability to come in as a big-time player, hear all the hype, win the MVP of the pre-season NIT, then learn through the year that his value to the team is not being the MVP,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright on Brunson’s role this season. “His value to the team is fitting in.”

This isn’t to say that Brunson hasn’t shined throughout the season, showcasing the talent that had him ranked as a five-star recruit in high school.

Brunson averages 9.8 points and 2.6 assists in 24.1 minutes per game going into Saturday night’s Final Four matchup against Oklahoma.

In a role that he will soon outgrow, Brunson has been extremely efficient. Brunson is the team’s most accurate three-point shooter (38.7 percent) among players that are a regular part of Villanova’s rotation. In addition to his marksmanship from long-range, Brunson shoots 50.2 percent on two-pointers and can be given much credit as to why Villanova is averaging a paltry 10.3 turnovers per game in its four NCAA Tournament games.

Brunson has played extremely well in the tournament, shooting 48 percent from the field and a scorching 60 percent on his three-pointers. Brunson’s highlight of the tournament up to this point came against the tournament’s number one overall seed. Against the Kansas Jayhawks in the Elite Eight, Brunson knocked down two free throws with three seconds remaining to put the game away.

“He just has so much poise,” senior guard Arcidiacono said of Brunson. “It shows that he is a big-time player and won’t be rattled by any situation.”

Arcidiacono has played a tremendous role in Brunson’s time at Villanova, including being one of the reasons Brunson chose to play at Villanova over Illinois, Connecticut, Kansas, and Michigan State, among others.

“Behind the scenes in the recruitment of Jalen, Ryan was the greatest figure,” Wright said. “Jalen, on his visit, we had a hotel room for him, but he stayed in Arch’s room with Arch. Those two really hit it off.”

Brunson agreed. “When I went on my first visit,” he remembered, “I felt like I was a part of the team. I already felt like I was good friends with Ryan. I think it’s because we have the same goals, we want what’s good for the team no matter what.”

The friendship between the senior and freshman has had on-the-court benefits as well, when Arcidiacono and Brunson chatted about which of the two should be the primary ball-handler. The two decided that the team was better off with Brunson running the point while Arcidiacono played off the ball. In Villanova’s guard-heavy offense, Arcidiacono’s deference to Brunson when it comes to primary ball-handling duties has been one less headache for Wright, and helped the Wildcats’ offense rank fourth in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency according to the website

It’s no secret that Brunson is on deck as the next great guard to play for Jay Wright. Next year, Brunson’s role will be increased and he’ll likely be one of the nation’s premier returning players.

Wright summed up Brunson’s present and future. “Next year, he’s going to have to take over a lot more,” the coach said. “This year, he’s just got to fit in.”

Brunson’s time to stand out will come soon, but it’s his ability to fit in that has Villanova just two games away from a national title.