2018 NCAA Tournament: Jalen Brunson vs. Collin Sexton is the duel we deserve
Villanova vs. Alabama is the backdrop for the point guard battle everyone wants to see
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PITTSBURGH -- College basketball's most highly regarded NBA point guard prospect will square off against college basketball's most highly esteemed point guard Saturday.
Sexton vs. Brunson is arguably the best head-to-head player/position battle the NCAA Tournament will see in its first weekend. Their teams are approaching it from different angles as well. National title contender vs. upset-minded upstart.
We've been afforded this face-to-face thanks to No. 9 Alabama's 86-83 win over No. 8 Virginia Tech on Thursday night in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It was the Tide's first tournament victory since 2006. Sexton was tremendous Thursday, putting up a game-high 25 points in addition to six assists. Before that, top-seeded Villanova casually dispatched No. 16 Radford (87-61).
It was during that game that Sexton said he got his first good look this season at Brunson. He watched in the arena and saw a lot of what makes the National Player of the Year front-runner so good. Brunson barely needed to break a sweat vs. Radford; he had 16 points, four assists and three rebounds.
"I remember him from Skills Academy camp two years ago," Sexton told CBS Sports. "He was playing with the college students. He's good."
Sexton vs. Brunson is the kind of faceoff that enhances the NCAA Tournament experience. We care about the brackets, the winners, the dramatic endings, all that. But college hoops still props up stars every March out of organic necessity. Brunson-Sexton will vault one of the two into the second weekend, and with that, potentially alter their draft stock. We get only a handful -- if that -- of these kind of position-for-position duels every March.
NBA scouts are going to fill up their allotment for this game at PPG Paints Arena on Saturday afternoon. It's the early tip, so be sure you're in front of a TV by noon.
"He's a great player," Brunson said. "He's the whole package for that team. I mean, it's not just him. They have all great pieces around him. And they're just one really good team and Collin does a great job being aggressive and getting his teammates involved. They all play the role pretty well."
Brunson is the heady veteran, the probable eventual winner of multiple National Player of the Year honors. He's the best player on maybe the best team in college basketball. His game is defined not just by what he does but how he does what he does with a toolbox full of tricks. And beyond that, Brunson is rightfully elevated by Villanova's overall strength. That team is a No. 1 seed because he is its leader.
Brunson entered this season as a reasonable choice to be an All-American. He exceeded expectations. This tournament is essentially his shot at legend status in Philadelphia.
Now he'll go up against a confident, bull of a player in Sexton. Whereas Brunson often makes the deft, shrewd move in the right moment, Sexton can sometimes will a positive play out of thin air. The Crimson Tide's point guard commands a very different style than Brunson. But styles make fights. The mystery element to this matchup is the best part. We don't really know how either player is going to handle the other.
"Honestly, I feel like it's going to be a good game for us," Sexton said. "We're just going to see where we place and go out and play hard the whole game. ... We're going to approach this the same way. We're going to try to do what we do best, and that's play defense. I feel like we're one of the really good defensive teams in the country."
Crimson Tide coach Avery Johnson knows plenty about playing point guard and exceeding at the college and pro level. He did both. I asked him what he thought of Brunson.
"I saw Jalen probably over 20 years ago," Johnson said, alluding to Brunson's father Rick playing in the NBA. "A lot of what I see in Jalen, maybe a little bit better offensive version. Just like [my son] can shoot 3s better than me -- not tonight, though (Avery Johnson Jr. was 0 for 2 on 3-pointers Thursday). But that's what it is. That same toughness. I saw him a lot on the AAU circuit. I'm very familiar with his game, and again, I know the focus will be on the matchup Collin and Jalen. Two great players."
Alabama has played tough teams this season, but it hasn't played anyone as good as Villanova. Sexton has gone up against quality point guards (Tremont Waters, Chris Chiozza, Trae Young, Quade Green), but he hasn't faced a player on Brunson's level. Sexton will probably be a top-10 pick come June. Brunson is seen as a potential top-30 guy.
But that's for the next level, and that's for another time. Saturday is about how good you are and how much better you make your team on the college level in a do-or-go-home game.
"Obviously we're very different," Brunson said. "He just -- all of that stuff really doesn't matter. I believe that he's a great player. He has a bright future ahead of him, and he's going to do a lot of great things. But it's really about Villanova versus Alabama. All of the individual match-ups, I mean, that's great and all, but we're going to focus on playing Villanova basketball for 40 minutes."
Brunson has already won a national title and is in good position to get a second. Sexton is fueled by a quiet mania that has taken him from afterthought college prospect to Alabama savior. Sexton now transitions to getting his mind -- and teeth -- straight. He took a shot to the mouth late in Thursday's win. He showed me his front right tooth, which was wiggling.
"I'm good," he said. "It's shaky. The big one, but I'm good. It's shaking a little bit."
The tournament deserves a matchup like this. The players do too. Point guard play is so often the great decider in this tournament. Two of the best, if not the two best -- for different reasons -- get to show us why that's true come Saturday afternoon.
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