Required to give some analysis on the root canal his Musketeers had just endured at the hands of Villanova, Xavier coach Chris Mack was asked about Wildcats point guard Jalen Brunson. He’s really good, Mack said, after top-ranked Villanova had disposed of his own 10th-ranked squad, 89-65.
“You peel his face off, he’d probably have wires coming out of it,’’ Mack said. “He’s phenomenal.”
That’s not the only Brunson sci-fi thriller you could conjure up. What about a ballplayer who can see the future? You’d be excused for thinking Brunson could foresee a second-half sequence Wednesday at the Wells Fargo Center. As a ref put the ball in play, Brunson mentioned something to teammate Donte DiVincenzo. His plan, it turned out, was to immediately get the ball to DiVincenzo on the left wing, and stay on the right wing himself. DiVincenzo then diagonaled a pass over to teammate Phil Booth in the right corner.
There was nothing out of the ordinary here. Booth threw a pass back out to Brunson. Except as soon as Booth’s man took a step toward Brunson, Brunson whipped the ball back to Booth. Hot all night, Booth buried the three-pointer. No big deal at all, except Brunson set up every step of it.
“We’re just playing ball, but Jalen has a great feel,’’ Booth said about the play. “He saw the guy step up; he saw I was open. He’s really good at making quick decisions, getting somebody the ball. I was ready to catch and shoot.”
Fair to say Booth was feeling it?
“Yeah, just a little bit,’’ he said with a laugh, after scoring 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting, adding four assists of his own. Booth talked about how he and Brunson are always reminding each other to be on constant attack, non-stop attack. That’s their internal mantra.
Wednesday night, NBA scouts filled a row of the press seating area. One of the scouts, asked about Brunson immediately after the game, said he’s “so cerebral’’ and so confident in his decision-making. “Not to sound corny, he really is the heart of this team,” the scout said.
National player of the year right now, the scout added, comes down to Brunson and Oklahoma freshman Trae Young.
“It really is a two-man race,’’ the scout said.
This scout has no doubt Brunson has an NBA future. He’s a pro because he’s a pro? The scout nodded. His next-level abilities absolutely translate to the next level. (Not a first-rounder, the scout said. Brunson will have to prove that he won’t get taken advantage of defensively to earn major minutes.)
Brunson’s Xavier stat line showed 17 points, 5 assists and 1 turnover, all within range of his season averages. Halfway through the season, his offensive rating, as devised by Ken Pomeroy, is a historically high number (140.9). Of players involved in at least 24 percent of their team’s possessions, that number, which factors in all offensive contributions, would be the highest in college hoops since Pomeroy began publishing those stats in 2004.
Half a season to go, but if you’ve been watching Villanova, you’ve seen how Brunson has added some razzle-dazzle to his complete fundamentals. Wednesday, there was a crossover dribble to open up a passing lane, followed by a bounce pass executed just like your first youth coach taught you. The combo is a killer. You also need complete confidence to drive into a defender’s body and basically blow up the play, letting the ball go loose, which forces the referee to blow his whistle. Except the decision is basically out of the ref’s hands. Brunson already made it for him. The defender wasn’t set. Brunson went to the line.
Ever take Brunson’s play for granted?
“He’s so locked in,’’ Booth said. “Everything on the court. … All the things he does on the court, we expect it of him.”
Which is different from taking him for granted. There aren’t always questions about Brunson’s play at postgame pressers. Also different. Press row is usually buzzing about Brunson. Sometimes reporters just run out of things to ask.
“We definitely don’t take it for granted,’’ said Booth, whose own Ken Pom offensive rating has risen to 14th in the nation. “There’s a reason why we’re so good, what he does for us.”
Coaches typically pump up the players in their own conference, but Chris Mack wasn’t stretching when he started listing all of Villanova’s attributes and finished by saying, “and I think they’re led by the best point guard in the college game.”