Jensen: Jay Wright gushes over Penn freshman Brodeur

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Penn's A.J. Brodeur (middle) battles Villanova's Josh Hart (left) and Dylan Painter for a loose ball in the second half on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016.

The pass wasn't looped. Penn freshman power forward A.J. Brodeur threw it at a healthy velocity, spotting an open shooter outside. Brodeur just didn't account for Josh Hart, which puts him in pretty good company. Villanova's star jumped into the picture, appeared from somewhere to intercept the pass. Four seconds later, Kris Jenkins was hitting another three-pointer.

Here's the thing. Brodeur didn't look fazed. Here was his first Palestra game, against the defending NCAA champs, and the kid, well, Brodeur looked like he belonged, chasing down offensive rebounds, beating every Villanova player downcourt one time for a dunk.

There's a reason why Notre Dame and Davidson and Boston College wanted this 6-foot-8 guy, why Northwestern and Stanford were looking at him "before I decided to buckle down and go Ivy League."

His motor stays running. Asked after his team had taken out Penn, 82-57, for his first impression of the one freshman starter out there for either team, 'Nova coach Jay Wright said, "I saw him play against Omari in high school."

Omari Spellman, Villanova's five-star freshman, has to sit out this season. Wright said he came back last season and told Penn coach Steve Donahue, "I saw your guy. He's good. He's really good. The kid's going to be really good. He's mobile, skilled, tough."

Brodeur, from Northampton, Mass., announced himself in Penn's opening game against Robert Morris, with 23 points and 11 rebounds. His line against Villanova was roughly half that, with 10 points and five rebounds. At Miami, he had 16 and eight.

Tuesday night, Donahue talked about how Villanova players were engaged in every aspect of the game, "an incredible buy-in, and that's not that easy at that level." He wasn't slighting their talent, Donahue said, but made the point that there are more talented teams out there. "More length. More size, speed, skill, depth. But there's no team that plays that together and that hard in every aspect of the game."

Immediately after saying that, Donahue was asked about his own freshman.

"I was really pleased with A.J., thought he really competed," Donahue said. "I think you saw signs . . . banging, going head-to-head with those guys. I think he has a chance to be a real special player because he kind of brings the same traits I'm telling you about Villanova. Every single day, every single possession, he's competing, both sides of the ball."

Talking later outside the Penn locker room, Brodeur was asked about the speed Villanova brings to the game. It's not like Penn wants to play slow.

"At times, we weren't able to catch up," Brodeur said. "There were also stretches where I think we did a good job of kind of slowing things down, taking things at our speed, going fast when we needed to, scoring points. At the end of the day, they did it for more of the game. I think that was the deciding factor. They had control of the game."

Of that Hart steal, Brodeur said. "It's just those things. In practice, it's hard. Obviously we can't be playing against them every day."

You can't simulate a first-team all-American jumping passing lanes. Brodeur thought Penn adapted. They had 17 turnovers, but so did Villanova.

Five games in, one home game, two wins and three losses, has Brodeur felt a comfort level in terms of being able to play at this level?

"Yeah, it's awesome," Brodeur said. "I'm having fun out here. I think that's the most important thing. We've had a tough stretch of games, but I imagine we're going to start winning games soon."

Brodeur remembers playing both Omari Spellman and Villanova forward Eric Paschall when each did a prep school year at St. Thomas More in Connecticut two years apart. Brodeur was at Northfield Mount Hermon in Massachusetts, another New England prep power.

"I remember at that school specifically," Brodeur said, "the type of play they play there. They know who their guy is. And that year it was Omari Spellman. A couple of years before, it was Eric Paschall. They really play through them a lot. Me, personally, having to guard that," it was a good battle, he was saying. The schools split games last season, he said, then his school won the New England championship. "Very rewarding for us."

The point is, he's ready for this level. He talked about the continuing rising talent level of the Ivies. "No joke anymore." The level of education was obviously important in his decision, Brodeur said. He turned down Harvard and Yale. He had all the Ivy options. "I'm someone who looks forward to the 60 years after I'm going to be done with basketball."

Let's stick with the next four. When Wright said to Donahue, "I saw your guy," he meant exactly that. Penn wouldn't be picked fourth in the Ivy, trending up after going 5-9 last season, without word of mouth on the freshman. Inside the Palestra, he may be the guy already.

mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus

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