Stopping Villanova’s Jalen Brunson no easy feat
San Antonio — For a brief moment on Sunday, Jalen Brunson contemplated the same difficult question coaching staffs have been faced with for the better part of three seasons — how do you stop Jalen Brunson?
After a long pause, the consensus player of the year came up with the best option he could think of.
“Just hope I miss,” he said.
These days, it seems like that’s the best strategy, even if it’s not exactly the one Michigan will use on Monday night when it faces Villanova at 9:20 p.m. at the Alamodome in the national championship game. But with the way Brunson has played this season, including during Villanova’s NCAA Tournament run, getting him to miss a few shots he normally makes sure wouldn’t hurt.
“It’s something that we’re going to be stewing over coffee at the table in a hotel ballroom and scratching our heads and figuring out how to stop Jalen Brunson on the post, on the wing, at the top,” Michigan assistant coach Luke Yaklich said. “I watched him in high school. He was dynamic. I took my son to the high school finals to watch him play. He’s really, really good.”
There’s no debating how good Brunson is, something he’s reaffirmed this week by taking in quite the haul of individual awards. He’s been named the Player of the Year by the Associated Press while also winning the Oscar Robertson Trophy and adding the Naismith Trophy on Sunday morning.
He’s averaging 19.2 points, 4.7 assists and 3.1 rebounds a game while shooting 41.3 percent from 3-point range.
Michigan’s Zavier Simpson will likely draw the defensive assignment, one the sophomore is relishing.
“Definitely a matchup that I’m looking forward to. Who wouldn’t?” Simpson said. “As a point guard, and one who wants to be elite at the next level, who wouldn’t want to look forward to a matchup like Brunson that’s a National Player of the Year and things like that? It comes with it. In order to be the best, you have to compete with the best.”
What makes Brunson the best goes beyond the pure numbers.
He can do everything a top point guard can, shooting the ball, distributing and understanding the game as well anyone on the floor. But add in what most describe and an “old-school” game and Brunson becomes even tougher to defend.
At 6-foot-3, he’s just as effective posting up smaller guards or simply backing them into the post. It’s thanks to his dad — nine-year NBA veteran Rick Brunson — pushing him to become an all-around player.
“He’s got incredible poise and a presence with the game that he sees open people,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “He makes it very difficult and he’s got good enough size to how he posts up or he dribble posts up. Those are things that we see a little bit of, but usually the guy is not a guard position. So, he’s a really difficult matchup.
“I think I heard the analogy, he plays like an old man. He does. He plays like a guy that’s played forever and just outsmarts everybody.”
Simpson’s challenge will be to stick with that old man while bouncing back from a rough outing in the victory over Loyola-Chicago when he turned the ball over four times.
Brunson understands he’s going to get Simpson’s best effort.
“He finds ways to get in you defensively,” Brunson said. “He’s quick with his hands. He can slide his feet. He’s really strong. He keeps his man in front of him. He’s really just a smart player. That whole team has a philosophy that they’re always playing together. It’s not just one guy on an island; they’re playing together.”
Simpson said he’ll be ready for the matchup and the Wolverines are confident he’ll be able to do enough to slow the best player in the nation.
“He’s a competitor, so you always look forward to playing other good players and X will tell you, good players want to play against other good players,” Yaklich said. “X enjoys a challenge. He always has in the Big Ten, in our nonconference schedule from (UCLA’s) Aaron Holiday all the way through every point guard we played in the NCAA Tournament, he embraces every challenge like he should because he’s a good player and he loves to compete.”
Stopping Brunson is just one concern for the Wolverines. As good as he is, the Wildcats entered the tournament with six players averaging in double-figures and have the No. 1 scoring offense in the nation.
But having a chance at winning the program’s second national title starts with slowing Brunson.
“It’s very important,” Simpson said. “Obviously, he’s a great point guard, but then again, without Brunson they have a great team. They have some great players on the perimeter.
“We just want to try and contain him first, obviously the point guard of the team, that’s the person you just want to try and limit on shot attempts and things like that and make him uncomfortable.”
Michigan vs. Villanova
Tip-off: 9:20 p.m. Monday, Alamodome, San Antonio
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan 33-7; No. 1 seed Villanova 35-4