SAN ANTONIO, Texas — The scene at the Final Four, as it is with all outsize sporting events these days, as it was here at the Alamodome on Saturday night, often seems a spectacle for the sake of spectacle — the darkened arena and solemn national anthem giving way to thunderous music, the giant video board above the court a psychedelic succession of colors and game highlights and NCAA advertisements. Then the basketball would find its way into Jalen Brunson’s hands, and the place would feel quiet and still, as if he were floating above the frenzy and could calm it if he chose to, and had.
This is the great gift that Brunson has always possessed, from his years at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., through his career at Villanova. The ball does what he wants. The flow of play does what he wants, at his pace, at his discretion, on his terms. When he is at his best, he and the Wildcats can direct a game, and in turn their opponent, wherever they wish. And on Saturday night, they sent Kansas to its knees.
There were the Wildcats, routing the Jayhawks, 95-79, overwhelming them with a Final Four-record 18 three-pointers and pristine offensive play. And if Villanova didn’t need Brunson to be brilliant to beat Kansas, for the first half Saturday he was happy to do more than what was required.
He was fresh from receiving another national player-of-the-year award Friday — this time from the United States Basketball Writers Association, this time with the honor of meeting the award’s namesake, Oscar Robertson — and he showed over those first 20 minutes why the shelves of his trophy case are stocked: 13 points, three three-pointers, four assists, just one turnover, overseeing and orchestrating it all.
There is a beautiful craftiness to Brunson’s game, a quality that is appealing to and can be appreciated by younger and older basketball aficionados alike, especially those who would insist that Robertson and players of previous generations set a standard that today’s can never meet. He would fit perfectly into a half-court pickup game at a local YMCA, among the old-timers who prize a stiff screen and a smart backdoor cut.
His style is born of both nature and nuture: His father, Rick, of course, was a star player at Temple and a 10-year NBA veteran, and one can trace Brunson’s intelligent, deliberate approach to playing point guard straight to Rick’s college coach, John Chaney, who asked his guards to protect the basketball as if were a precious stone.
“That’s how his dad sees the game, and it’s a great way to see the game,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “That’s how he raised Jalen, and he did it real well.”
When he and assistant coach Ashley Howard traveled to Illinois to recruit Brunson, Wright saw a high school player more mature and refined, he said, than any he had seen before. “It comes from his dad,” Wright said. “If we go to play at [Madison Square] Garden, the people who work at the Garden are hugging him. They remember him when he was 3 years old, with his dad. At Georgetown, Patrick Ewing’s hugging him. ‘I remember you as a little kid.’ He’s been around it his whole life. He’s a lifer.”
He has grown only more mature after three years in Wright’s program, after helping the Wildcats win a national title in 2016 and reach the brink of another now.
That sense of what to do and when to do it was apparent whenever Kansas threatened to make Saturday’s game something it never really was: competitive.
In one sequence, while double-teamed, he made a marvelous wraparound bounce pass along the baseline from one corner to the other to set up a Mikal Bridges three-pointer. In another, the Jayhawks trimmed Villanova’s lead to 12 twice, and on each subsequent possession, the 6-foot-3 Brunson drilled a three-pointer — the first over Sam Cunliffe, who is 6-6, and the second over Silvio De Sousa, who is 6-9.
All the while, the placid expression on his face never changed. It never does. It is as if he has stripped away everything from his game that is unessential for him, including any obvious displays of emotion, leaving only his skills and smarts and unselfishness.
“I just don’t think showing off is going to do us any good,” said Brunson, who finished with 18 points and six assists. “I just try to make sure I’m doing what’s best for my team. That’s how I help my team be successful. Obviously, I feel like I can do a lot of things, and I have that confidence. But with the team I have, I have so much help on my side. It’s not just me. It’s the whole team. Everyone has the same mentality. That’s what makes it special.”
One more game, one more victory over Michigan on Monday night, and Jalen Brunson can show off all he wants. The player of the year? A two-time national champion? A style and legacy all his own? No one would hold it against him. No one should.