clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Jalen Brunson and 'Nova newcomers offer motivation and evolution for Wildcats basketball

Young talent, mixed with veteran leadership and role players itching to step-up, is the perfect recipe for success.

Matt Gregory | VU Hoops

The cameras engulfed one man in particular on media day, and it wasn't Jay Wright. It wasn't either of the two senior captains responsible for playing an integral part of last year's 2015 Big East Tournament Champions. Rather, surrounded by the bright lights, was most highly recruited freshman to wear a Villanova jersey in years.

The Jalen Brunson hype train is real, and it's spectacular.

And Daniel Ochefu is all-aboard.

"He's like the second coming of Scotty Reynolds," Ochefu said, grinning. "For a lot of young guys, that could be distracting. But for Jalen, he has a senior's mentality. I'm pretty sure none of this phases him."

The McDonalds All-American, the top-ranked freshman point guard in the country, and the leader of USA's under 19 team is living the life as a college basketball superstar at Villanova. The expectations are sky-high, and there's no turning back.

"I embrace [the expectations]," Brunson said. "At the same time, I have my own expectations. My team has expectations and so does Coach Wright. I know I need to let them know that I am really bought in and that I'm ready to work hard."

One would expect Brunson to have some preseason jitters. After all, he is only a 19-year-old kid miles away from his home in Lincolnshire, Illinois. But he is unfazed, undaunted by the task of taking the floor in his first collegiate basketball game.

"I'm definitely excited for this first game," Brunson said. "I don't think I'm nervous because I know once I step on the court I feel right at home. It's just going to be another basketball game."

In the meantime, Brunson has been pushing his teammates in practice and impressing none other than the 2015 Co-Big East Player of the Year, Ryan Arcidiacono. The two have been playing on different lineups throughout the preseason, meaning the sage veteran and the young assassin have been going toe-to-toe every practice.

"He motivates me," Arcidiacono said. "I don't want to be shown-up by a freshman so it's always a friendly competition."

Brunson doesn't act like a superstar who is capable of defending and attacking one of college basketball's top point guards. He carries himself like an everyday Villanovan.

"He's got a good confidence and swagger about him too, which he carries with him on the court," Arcidiacono said. "I like that and I know a lot of his teammates like it too. He's just been one of the guys, not 'Jalen Brunson All-American.'"

The press has made much ado about the ability for Brunson and Arcidiacono to coexist. In many ways, they are complete opposites. One is a risk-taker on offense, a highly touted midwestern import, a lefty, and a freshman. The other is a steady veteran, a local kid, a righty, and a senior. But as Jay Wright sees it, his two star point guards are one in the same.

"[Brunson] is a left-handed Arch," Wright said. "He's just like [Arch]. He came in doing the things we do already, like Arch did. And that's rare, but we've been lucky to have the two of them."

Brunson is a newcomer, so he doesn't feel the pain of March 21, 2015.

That was the day that Goliath fell, the number one seed dropped at David's stone. 'Nova Nation was devastated at the second-straight early NCAA postseason exit, obliterated on the boards and in the paint. While fans may still be recovering from the trauma of that day, the coaching staff and players are moving on.

"I have been very impressed that they don't talk about last year," Wright said. "I'll mention things that happened in that game to illustrate a point because, when you're teaching, you want to see where you can improve. So you use it as a teaching point, but never as inspiration."

The roster turnover is certainly a factor in forgetting the past. Darrun Hilliard is playing for the Detroit Pistons, JayVaughn Pinkston is rehabbing and returned to Hoops Mania, and Dylan Ennis is preparing for his senior season with the Oregon Ducks. In their place are three freshmen, one sophomore who redshirted last season, and one freshman who is redshirting this season.

For the two senior captains, however, this isn't just another season. This is a chance to cement their legacy, to make a run, and to have fun playing together.

"There's a little more urgency this year because we know its our team this year," Ochefu said. "We're the two senior captains, so everyone is looking for us to set an example. So there's more expectations."

For Ochefu, that means setting the tone in practice and "showing a commitment to defense and rebounding."

But at this point in the season, it is easy to emphasize the importance of practice. Ultimately, however, the Wildcats need to prove that they can not just perform in the winter months, but that they can blossom as March rolls around the corner. Ochefu believes that it's all about maintaining a high level of defense and continuing to improve, instead of plateauing, during the regular season.

"Overall, our defense has to get better," Ochefu said. "That's the same answer now as it'll be in March. If we go into the season with the mentality that we have to get better every single day at every little thing, I think we'll be a great team."

Although they hope the final product will be different, there's no doubt that the two captains will also look to enjoy their final few months together in Villanova jerseys.

"Playing with [Ochefu] has been great," Arcidiacono said. "We've been through the ups and downs of this program and luckily more ups than downs. He's developed into a really good player and a go-to guy."

Arcidiacono is right about Ochefu's evolution. But the senior center has the highest praise and the ultimate faith in his point guard.

"If Arch has the ball at the end of the game, I say 'whatever, man, you can do whatever you want,'" Ochefu said.

* * *

Arcidiacono and Ochefu are the backbones of the 2015-16 Villanova Wildcats. They will be relied upon to provide not only leadership, but production. A program with such a team-first concept will ensure, however, that the two don't have to do this alone.

There's Josh Hart, the 2015 Big East Tournament MVP. There's the smooth stretch-four, Kris Jenkins. But there's a few other players who didn't get a chance to make their mark on last year's team who will be called upon to step up into a critical, contributing role on an elite team.

Darryl Reynolds has waited long enough. After years of watching and waiting, Reynolds finally has the opportunity to step into a significant role behind Ochefu.

"I'm not trying to do exactly what he does, but just trying to match his rebounding presence in the paint," Reynolds said. "Rebounding is definitely my top priority."

While Reynolds puts the "D" in "Darryl," he might surprise fans with his ability to influence games offensively. No, Wright won't call for many Reynold's post-ups, but he will be able to feed off the natural flow of the offense to finish in the paint.

"It's developed a lot since my freshman year, and even more since last year," Reynolds said of his offensive game. "The shots will come. The guards will get in the lane, kick it down. There will be offensive rebounding opportunities as well and that's where decision making comes into play."

Reynolds won't be the only supporting character to make a difference defensively. The lanky, athletic Mikal Bridges redshirted last season to bulk up and improve offensively. But there's no doubt about his natural ability at locking down perimeter swingmen.

"My strength is defense on ball or off the ball, being able to get deflections with my length and getting steals and blocking shots," Bridges said. "We're a good offensive team, but we have to play defense 40 minutes."

While Bridges won't have to provide much offensively, Phil Booth will be called upon to fill up the bucket in Hilliard and Ennis' absence. After shooting a prolific 56% from the field last season, Booth's productivity is poised to increase significantly. And, with improved scoring outputs, perhaps a starting role is in store for the sophomore guard.

"It's a great opportunity," Booth said. "Those guys were great last year, [Hilliard] and [Ennis], great leaders who taught me a lot when I first got here."

Now the keys are more in Booth's hands, where he doesn't care who he plays next to as long as he plays "Villanova Basketball."

But what is "Villanova Basketball" this year? It can't be exactly the same system, which fed Pinkston the ball on the block and featured Hilliard as a go-to shooter. So is there going to be the resurrection of the four-guard offense? Is there going to be more run-and-gun with increased speed an athleticism?

Michael Jordan once said, "put all the work in, and let the future emerge."

The Wildcats have put the work in. Let's all watch the future unfold.