Carter played an anti-AAU style, and if anyone on the circuit knew how relentless he was, it was Jalen Brunson. They were scrappy prospects on the same AAU team in suburban Chicago in eighth and ninth grade when the older Carter would hound Brunson at every turn in practice.
“He was definitely a guy that picked on me,” Brunson said.
Carter would go on to sign with Huggins and the Mountaineers and become one of the best defenders in college basketball, embodying his program’s nickname, “Press Virginia.” Brunson grew from those early lessons and became a five-star recruit who signed with Villanova, where in three years he has become one of the most intelligent and crafty point guards in the country.
When the top-seeded Wildcats and fifth-seeded Mountaineers meet Friday in the East Region semifinals at TD Garden, they will be the faces of contrasting styles: Brunson, the Big East player of the year, steers the country’s most efficient offense, while Carter, the two-time Big 12 defensive player of the year, drives a full-court pressure defense that is fully capable of stopping it.
“He’s a great player. He’s been similar [to] back then in those days,” Brunson said of Carter.
“He’s very smart. He’s crafty. He knows how to use his body well,” Carter said of Brunson.
They reminisced about each other in opposite locker rooms before their respective practices Thursday, talking about their teenage years together, but both did their best to deflect talk about their individual matchup in Friday’s game. Carter compared the Wildcats to Kansas because both have a stable of guards. Brunson touched on the Mountaineers’ depth and ability to pressure the ball for 40 minutes; at one point he even changed the subject to the sartorial contrasts of the teams’ coaches: Villanova’s Jay Wright wears custom-tailored suits, while Huggins prefers baggy pullovers.
“They have two unique styles. I think they have a very good chance of winning in their own bracket. Coach [Wright] is over here; Coach Huggins over there,” Brunson said with a grin. “Definitely unique.”
So are the lean, left-handed Brunson and the stocky, right-handed Carter. Their style of offensive play is different — Brunson plays more in the post and is more of a natural scorer. “He knows about angles and stuff,” Carter said. Carter’s offensive development took longer and relies on his penetrating ability and step-back jumper, but both are hard-nosed players who are elite on different ends of the floor.
Villanova’s offensive efficiency is 127.6 points per 100 possessions, the highest rate in the country, according to analytics site KenPom.com; it continued to display both its balance and its prolific three-point shooting ability in wins over Radford and Alabama during the first two rounds of the tournament. The Wildcats hit 31 three-pointers over those games, including 17 in the victory over Alabama, when Brunson overcame early foul trouble and helped junior Mikal Bridges spark a second-half blowout to advance to the Sweet 16.
They waited more than 24 hours for their opponent. After West Virginia easily took care of in-state rival Marshall in the second round behind Carter’s 28 points, five assists, four rebounds and five steals, the Wildcats knew they would be facing one of their most difficult defensive challenges of the season.
But while Brunson is not as decorated a defender as Carter, who leads the country with 108 steals, he is comparable in how hard he plays and how integral his leadership is to his team, which is pushing for its second national championship in three years.
“We know they’re a great team with a great leader in Jevon, but it’s just not him. The whole team has great pieces,” Brunson said.
Brunson played just two years of AAU basketball with Carter, who is a year older, but that was enough to help prepare him for his standout high school career. They would go at each other during practices and hang out together off the court as much as possible when they played on the road, Brunson said, learning as much as they could from one another without knowing that years later their paths would cross again in the Sweet 16 in Boston.
“There were days I made him better. There were days he made me better,” Brunson said. “It’s just great to have someone like that at such a young age to make you better.”
More college basketball: