NCAA championship 2018: Villanova's Jalen Brunson can own this season forever with one more quiet opus

SAN ANTONIO – Jalen Brunson’s routine in preparation for Villanova’s semifinal game Saturday at the 2018 Final Four was most curious. He would show up at the appointed time and the appointed place in the Alamodome and someone would hand him a trophy and say wonderful things about how he plays the game.

NCAA Final Four 2018: Villanova's Jalen Brunson can own this season forever with one more quiet opus

NCAA Final Four 2018: Villanova's Jalen Brunson can own this season forever with one more quiet opus

And then it was time to stop accepting player of the year awards and play some hoops against Kansas.

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At last.

“Thank the Lord,” Brunson told Sporting News. “I was getting – not annoyed – but I was just like: I want to get to this game. Just being able to win those awards, they really mean a lot to myself, to my family and this institution, but to be able to go to the national championship, be able to play one more game with these guys, that’s what means most.”

For the moment, this is Jalen Brunson’s Final Four, and it can be forever if he follows up the subtle masterpiece he delivered in a 95-79 destruction of No. 1 seed Kansas with something similar in Monday night’s NCAA Championship game.

Facing fellow All-American point guard Devonte’ Graham and a KU team that had won the Big 12 Tournament and the NCAA Midwest Region, Brunson exerted the same complete command of the game that he has throughout his junior season.

He wasn’t his team’s leading scorer. (That was power forward Eric Paschall, who shot 10-of-11 from the field and scored 24). He wasn’t the player who dominated the pivotal matchup. (That was center Omari Spellman, whose two early 3-pointers sent the message that this was not the night for 7-0, 280-pound Jayhawk Udoka Azubuike).

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Brunson was just the best player in the gym, if we can get away with calling a place that held 68,257 for these two games a name that conveys intimacy.

“He thinks about other people,” said Villanova staffer Mike Nardi, himself a great Villanova point guard a decade ago. “Everybody in this entire tournament has been talking about Jalen and what he can do and who he is for this team, but I think the other 14 guys on this team know who he really is and what they mean to him.

“And I think that showed tonight early on. He was getting guys shots. And we fed off of that. He doesn’t come into a game looking to make plays for himself and individually look good. He wants to play for his teammates, play for his coaches, and they sense that. And it just spreads throughout our team.”

In the 34 years of the NCAA Tournament’s expanded bracket, the Sporting News player of the year has appeared in the Final Four a dozen times. Brunson’s circumstance somehow seems different, even as the U.S. Basketball Writers and the Associated Press also honored him this week and the Naismith Award seems certain to follow.

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Perhaps because you need one of those miner’s helmets to find Brunson’s name on an NBA mock draft, perhaps because you must resort to the really fancy statistics to find a number that captures his ability to dominate a game, it feels as though his dominance is less apparent to the public.

Remember, it was Oklahoma guard Trae Young that got the superstar treatment from ESPN during the regular season, and when his season slipped toward the end there were analysts trying to shove candidates onto the stage with Brunson – even though his play had indicated he deserved to be alone in that spotlight.

“He’s a complete player. He can do anything,” Brunson’s backup, freshman Collin Gillespie, told Sporting News. “He goes inside. He does it in the post; he does it on the perimeter. He gets shots for people; he can create his own shot. So you learn a lot.

“The first week I was here, I learned quickly, because he got me in the post a lot. He posts everybody up on the team. He posts our big guys up. He’s probably our best post player.”

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Villanova surged to a 22-4 lead early against the Jayhawks that was still 47-32 at halftime. In those first 20 minutes, Brunson scored 13 points and assisted on four Wildcats buckets. So he had a direct hand in nine of the team’s 17 field goals. He scored only five points the rest of the way because he only needed to score five.

“If you just look at his efficiency, what he can do offensively … he can do everything,” Nardi said. “With our team, he’s not going to get the volume of shots that other guys may get, just because we’re so well balanced. We have 6-7 guys that can go off and score in double figures any night. He’s been the most consistent in doing that.”

Of Brunson’s P-O-Y predecessors who advanced to the Final Four, only five went on to the title game and only three won it. There was no doubting Anthony Davis’ dominance in 2012, though, or Christian Laettner’s in 1992.

Brunson has won at an astonishing level as an amateur. He led Stevenson High to three consecutive appearances in the Illinois high school final four, including a state championship his senior year. Before entering Villanova, he directed the United States to the FIBA U-19 World Championship and was named MVP over three teammates now in the NBA. As a Villanova freshman, he started alongside veteran point guard Ryan Arcidiacono and helped the Wildcats win the 2016 NCAA title. That’s to say nothing of starting for two Big East regular season champions and two Big East Tournament winners.

If he has another 40 minutes of understated magic in him Monday night against Michigan, will the public come to understand they’ve just witnessed one of the great college careers?

“I just really feel like we have more work to do,” Brunson said. “After the game, we were looking each other in the eye: We’re not satisfied.”

He will take one more trophy if he can get it. It will not be an individual award. If he wins it, though, Brunson should be remembered as one of the college game’s greats.

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