BOSTON – Perhaps the best individual matchup of all eight of the NCAA Sweet 16 games, Jalen Brunson of Villanova versus Jevon Carter of West Virginia, had its roots earlier in this decade in an AAU program in suburban Chicago.
It was there where Brunson and Carter, playing for Team NLP, a program founded by former Chicago Bulls star Dickey Simpkins, played together for two years, with Brunson in eighth and ninth grade and Carter one year ahead of him.
“He got me better every day,” Brunson said Thursday before Villanova hit the court at TD Garden for practice prior to its Sweet 16 game Friday night against West Virginia in the East Region.
“Like how he is now, he’s a great defender, a great shooter, a great leader. He was just able to make me better every day in practice. Obviously it’s cool to see him grow into the player he is now and see where he’s come from because it means he’s worked his butt off to get to this point.”
Brunson, a 6-foot-2 1/2 junior who already has added a few 2017-18 national player of the year awards to his resume, averages 19.1 points and 4.7 assists while shooting 53.5 percent from the floor. Meanwhile, the 6-2 Carter, a senior who won Big 12 defensive player of the year honors for the second straight season, leads his team with a 17.4-point average and ranks second in NCAA Division in steals (3.0 per game) and 12th in assists (6.6).
“I just remember day-in and day-out, whenever we would play against each other in practice, it was always a battle no matter what because we both wanted to be great players,” Brunson said. “We wanted to be as successful as we could be and it just showed how hard we wanted it.”
When thinking about the matchup, the Wildcats’ Jay Wright said he has to remember to think about it more as a coach than as a fan.
“I’m a fan of the game, too,” he said. “I watch Carter play on film and it excites me and inspires me. I’m like, ‘I love this kid’ and then I’m thinking, ‘Wow, him against Jalen is going to be great.’
“Then I’ve got to catch myself and say, ‘You can’t do that. It’s got to be a team matchup.’ But I can understand how fans would really love to see these two go at each other because they’re two of the toughest guards in college basketball and two of the smartest.”
When asked about his former AAU teammate, Carter praised Brunson but did not elaborate on their time together.
“What makes him tough?” Carter asked. “He’s smart. He’s very smart. He’s crafty. He knows how to use his body well. He knows about angles and stuff. I played with him growing up. We played together in AAU. So we’re very familiar with each other.”
Brunson said it’s important not to place so much emphasis solely on competing against Carter. Since Villanova switches so much on defense, he said there are no individual matchups. He said the Wildcats must play as a team and deal with West Virginia’s other “great pieces.”
“I’ve just got to stick to what I do, playing for my teammates and coaches,” he said. “I can’t get mixed up in the individual matchup. At the same time, I’ve got to be aggressive. I’ve got to be able to get my teammates involved and be able to be ready to catch and shoot and find ways to make my team better.”