Jalen Brunson leads Villanova basketball players to March Madness success on court and in classroom

Villanova Wildcats men’s basketball point guard, Jalen Brunson. JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

The Villanova University administrator one morning this week tilted her computer screen so Jalen Brunson could see his midterm grades. He was pleased.

Then they talked about the next few days: Brunson would have to turn in a take-home exam Tuesday, finish online posts for another course and attend class Wednesday to work on his senior group project in communications, his major.

“I’m glad you’ll be able to attend class on Wednesday,” Jennifer Brophy told him.

“Yeah, I missed, like, every Wednesday,” Brunson said. “I’ve done the work. I just haven’t been able to meet with the group.”

Brunson is no slacker.

He’s the star player on the Villanova men’s basketball team, and the Wildcats, once again, are in the running for the national title — they defeated West Virginia on Friday night in Boston to reach the Elite Eight. With practices, games, travel, and media interviews, that makes for a busy schedule for Brunson, 21, of Cherry Hill.

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Jalen Brunson, point guard and star player for the Villanova basketball team talks about school work with Jennifer L. Brophy,director of academic support for athletics. JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Brophy, the university’s director of academic support for athletics, helps Brunson and other athletes manage their time and complete course requirements.

Academics are the priority for all students, including athletes, Villanova administrators say.

And it shows.

Villanova boasts that its 600 student athletes in 24 varsity sports have maintained better than a 3.0 GPA for 29 consecutive semesters, scoring nearly 3.3 last fall. The average GPA for the overall student body at Villanova is 3.4.

The university  is the only NCAA Division I school to have both its men’s and women’s basketball teams qualify for the tournament with a 100 percent graduation success rate and a perfect academic progress rate. By definition, that means their players graduate within six years — though Villanova says the vast majority of their athletes do it in four — and that players are advancing toward a degree.

Of the men’s teams still in the tournament, Villanova is the only one left to have that distinction. (The women lost Sunday to Notre Dame.)

The men’s basketball team has maintained an overall GPA above 3.0 for the last five semesters, and in 2016-17 was recognized for having the highest GPA among Big East teams.

“They are not athlete students. … They are first and foremost students,” said the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, Villanova president. “What they are receiving, what they are taking away from here, what will be lasting for them, is their degree. It will live long beyond their ability to play their sport.”

That’s important, considering most won’t play pro ball. Only 1.1 percent of NCAA players get drafted onto an NBA team, according to NCAA statistics.

Brunson, who has a 3.34 GPA, this month was recognized as both the Big East’s player and scholar athlete of the year — only the second time in conference history that a player achieved both in the same year. And Brunson, who aspires to follow in his father’s footsteps and play in the NBA, is on track to graduate in three years, a feat that would give him the option of being drafted this summer or playing another year at Villanova while going for his master’s.

What Villanova has accomplished should be celebrated, said Phil Martelli, coach of the St. Joseph’s University basketball team. It shows the university does not emphasize athletics over academics, he said.

“There’s a clear balance on that campus between student and athlete,” he said.

That kind of success can only be achieved when the athletic staff, faculty, and administration work together, he said.

“It’s not a one-man show,” said Martelli.

Jay Wright, coach of the Villanova men’s team, concurred.

“It’s really a team effort between the professors, the academic support staff, and the basketball staff,” he said. “The number-one goal is for [the players] to be educated and get their degrees.”

Wright said academic standards are stressed from the time players are recruited.

The team skews its travel based on classes, he said. The university charters flights out the night before the game and returns after the game so that students miss only one day of class, he said. Sometimes the team gets in at 3 a.m. and players attend 8:30 a.m. classes, he said.

“But we give them off practice that day,” he said.

Villanova Leads in Graduation Success Among Big East Schools

Villanova had a graduation success rate (GSR) of 100 percent last year in men’s basketball, leading the Big East Conference and ranking with Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania.
SOURCE: NCAA, 2016 to 2017 GSR Rates for Men’s Basketball
Staff Graphic

Players often take certain classes in the summer, such as science, to make sure they can fit in labs, and foreign languages, which can be difficult to miss, Wright said. Sophomore year for business majors is challenging, Wright said. The team eases up on those majors during that time. Engineering has proved toughest, he said. One player recently switched to geography.

Brophy, whose office reports to the provost, and another staff member meet with the basketball team every Monday and talk about classes, coming assignments, grades, and the travel schedule. Her office connects players with tutors and maintains weekly or monthly calendars for each player.

“They have to have really good time management, and that’s something we start as soon as they get to campus,” Brophy said.

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Villanova head coach Jay Wright against Alabama during the second round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on Saturday, March 17 at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Throughout Villanova’s varsity sports, 22 athletes achieved a perfect 4.0 last fall, including the cross-country team’s number-one runner, Bella Burda, 20, who as a sophomore last year was recognized for having the highest GPA in her sport at the national competition.

“It’s just being diligent with your time,” said Burda, a biology major from Pleasant Valley, N.Y., “and doing work in the spaces that you have.”

The women’s 17-member cross-country team last fall scored a record-high GPA for a Villanova sports team — 3.66 — and was the Big East Conference champion.

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Villanova’s president, the Rev. Peter M. Donohue. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer


On the rare times when athletes fail a class or test, said Donohue, there is no pressure on professors to pass them.

“Never have I had pushback from the athletic department or any of the coaches, saying change that in some way,” he said.

As a theater professor, Donohue said, he once failed an athlete who didn’t show up for the final.

Students who fall below a 2.0 GPA become ineligible to compete. Villanova typically has very few, if any, Brophy said.

“It’s not arm-twisting to get these kids to go to class,” said Mark Jackson, athletic director. “I don’t have kids in here that I’m disciplining because they’re on the borderline of eligibility. … What I do deal with are kids who are so focused and so determined and so driven to have success on the academic and athletic level, that it’s stressful.”

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Mark Jackson, athletic director at Villanova University JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

He’d like to see athletes get more downtime.

Brunson has made it work. A point guard, he started at Villanova in 2015-16 and was part of the Wildcats’ national championship team. During sophomore year, he said, there was speculation he might leave school and go pro. But Brunson said he and his parents have remained committed to graduation. He said he watched his father, Rick Brunson, an assistant coach for the Minnesota Timberwolves, return to school to get his degree.

“As far as me getting my degree, that’s the most important thing for us,” Brunson said.

He took classes every summer so that he could graduate in three years. His toughest course, he said, was biology. He took it last summer and got help from a tutor.

He tries to get his schoolwork done before and after road trips and communicates regularly with professors, he said. The take-home exam he had to turn in Tuesday had been due the week before, but his professor gave him an extension because the team was traveling.

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Villanova guard Jalen Brunson prepares to shoot against Alabama during the second round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on Saturday, March 17 at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

He’s on target to graduate this spring.

If he doesn’t get into the NBA or after a pro career, Brunson said, he plans to coach and pursue a career in sports journalism.

He applies the same determination to his studies as he does to basketball, he said.

“I try to take pride in everything I do,” he said. “It’s the culture that’s been built up around here.”