During Villanova’s semifinal win over Butler in the Big East tournament, there was a play in which point guard Jalen Brunson got out on a fastbreak and pushed the ball deep down the court, which is something he does very well.
The only problem was Butler’s defense got there first and in numbers. Things happen quickly on a basketball court, but Brunson’s move should have been to pull up and get the Wildcats safely into a halfcourt offense.
In a way, though, what did it matter? There were less than four minutes left in the game. Villanova, which began the night with a 19-0 run, was easily in control and would win by exactly that margin. Brunson, the Big East player of the year and a candidate for national player of the year, gets a pass, right?
“He got a 1-on-4, forces a shot, and I take him out of the game,” coach Jay Wright said.
Now, this says something about Wright, and it says something about the never-ending loop of “Villanova basketball” clichés, but it says a lot more about Brunson, a player who, in another program, could be averaging 30 points and leading the nightly highlight reels.
“You’re right. My bad,” Brunson said as he came to the bench.
If his teammates expected anything different after all this time, it would be surprising, and that might be the biggest statement of all. The Wildcats don’t just repeat the clichés — they live them — and that truly doesn’t happen everywhere.
“I love holding myself accountable and being held accountable by my teammates,” Brunson said. “It’s never easy, but it comes with the role of being a leader, and if your leadership is not up to par, then the team won’t be willing to work as hard.”
It’s tempting to say that Wright is lucky that his three team leaders this season — juniors Mikal Bridges, Phil Booth and Brunson — are willing instructors along with being great basketball players. When the best players on the team put in the work, the rest have to follow. That’s a nice situation for a coach. He doesn’t have to push the younger players because his leaders do it for him. He does have to push the leaders, though, and they have to accept it. That’s where luck ends and recruiting begins, although Wright knows that even careful recruiting doesn’t have to turn out this well.
“They have to allow me to get on them and demand the most from them, even though they are the leading scorers, they are making the plays to win games,” Wright said. “It just makes it easier to coach everybody else. We don’t have to tell the young guys, ‘This is what you do,’ because they watch what those three do and they watch how we coach those three.”
Brunson and Bridges are both probably playing their final seasons before entering the NBA draft. Bridges, the silky 6-foot-7 swingman, is a certain lottery pick. Brunson’s standing is less certain, but he has played himself into being a first-rounder. Booth missed last season because of injury and will be coming back for his senior year, but he is still the all-arounder who scored 20 points in the national championship game.
“You try to create respect within the team,” Booth said. “You can’t be everybody’s friend as much as when you were a freshman or a sophomore. We learned from the guys who came before us and showed us what it is. Sometimes, you have to have those tough talks.”
“It’s a lot of pressure being a leader,” Bridges said. “When things happen that might not be in your control, you can get blamed for it because you’re supposed to look out for everybody. Me, Jalen and Phil had to keep learning and we had our ups and downs, but now it’s a new season and we’ll keep trying to lead.”
The new season arrives Thursday in Pittsburgh as the NCAA tournament opens for the Wildcats with a matchup against 16th-seeded Radford. How long it lasts depends on many things, but it won’t be cut short by a lack of leadership on the roster.
“For them to do what they’ve done as juniors is impressive,” Wright said. “Mikal is the most talented guy, but he’s also unselfish, so I knew he’d be a great leader. Being a lottery pick, that can alter a guy’s mind, but it never fazed him. Phil Booth has the highest emotional intelligence of any guy we’ve ever had. And Jalen is a born leader. He wanted to be the leader as a freshman and really thought he could.”
The three have each gotten their chance this season, and Villanova is 30-4 as a result. That is because of their play on the court, to be sure, but because of their example, too. If that sounds corny, and it does, it always looks just fine when the lights come up, the band plays, and there is a game to be decided.