Maybe years from now, Penn’s A.J. Brodeur and Villanova’s Jeremiah Robinson-Earl can open a summer basketball camp together, find a spot in the Poconos to teach tall boys and girls how to play the game in all its facets.
They could turn on a video, go back to Dec. 4, 2019. A senior vs. a freshman. Two players at different stages of different career arcs, but with this in common: highest basketball IQ, combined with highest emotional intelligence.
Yes, Villanova pulled away at the very end on Dec. 4, 2019, to take out Penn, 80-69. Yes, Villanova sophomore Saddiq Bey had a night for himself, scoring 27 points.
The game within the game, that was something. Brodeur’s game: Pivot, reverse pivot, pivot back. So many tricks in his bag. You start to think a pivot is coming, and Brodeur goes right up with a baby hook.
A team does the smart thing and digs down on him with a second defender, he’ll do the smarter thing and find the open man, often cutting to the hoop for a layup. Brodeur finished Wednesday night with 18 points on 8-for-13 shooting and had 6 assists, 14 rebounds, and 3 blocks.
So Robinson-Earl had a tough night? Not so fast. Brodeur moved inside during the first half, to help on Collin Gillespie, who instantly hit Robinson-Earl outside, and he instantly hit a three-pointer.
Running offense through Robinson-Earl also worked fine. The freshman had three first-half assists. The second half began, he tipped away an entry pass intended for Brodeur. He stole an inbounds pass. He did his own work inside. One time, too much work, as Brodeur took a hard charge from him.
At the end, Robinson-Earl had 13 points on 6-for-11 shooting, 12 rebounds, 3 steals, 3 assists, and a plus-18 plus-minus, best of anybody on the court.
Jay Wright will look back at the night, and be impressed he has a freshman who didn’t back down from Brodeur.
“Brodeur’s got 42 assists on the season before this game,’’ the Wildcats coach said afterward. “He’s as good as any point guard you play against, and he’s in the 5 spot. How many 5 guys can guard him? I don’t even know what he had. It doesn’t matter. He’s a killer.”
What were the challenges facing Brodeur?
“He knows I’m a younger guy, and he can exploit that,’’ Robinson-Earl said. “It’s a really fun task to go against players like that who are experienced and can make you better mentally, fight through things. He was scoring a lot in the paint — kind of make me tougher. He was really good with the ball. Being disciplined in guarding him.”
All that pivoting — “it’s tough to guard,’’ Robinson-Earl said. “It takes stamina, and really your mindset, to be locked in, him having the ball for so long. He was making some tough shots. He’s been through these situations so many times. … Stay locked in guarding somebody that can pivot, find people, keep pivoting, shot fake, pivot, throw a scoop shot, just a tough shot to defend. It’s just a lot of fun.”
Asked where the advantage maybe swung Robinson-Earl’s way, Wright pointed to the late minutes.
“He was a little fresher,’’ Wright said. Of Brodeur, “he does so much for them.”
So if those were the challenges of facing A.J. Brodeur, let’s ask A.J. Brodeur about the challenges of facing Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. At 6-foot-8, Brodeur was giving up maybe an inch. He talked about knowing what he’s in for against a team such as Villanova.
“Not to put myself down, but more athletic than me, longer than me, faster than me,’’ Brodeur said. “That’s what I got tonight. I was expecting to use my footwork, stuff I’m really good at, use that, to find ways to score.”
Does he think about that even more when he’s facing a freshman? (Not that Robinson-Earl is a typical freshman.)
“Oh yeah, definitely,’’ Brodeur said. “That’s definitely something we always make a note of, the class of the people we play. … That’s definitely something I take into account. What are some common mistakes that freshmen make that I’ll be able to exploit. Today was no different. I thought I was able to get to my spots and really go from there.”
After Bey really had it going, Brodeur was switched over on to him. Bey was physically having his way with younger Penn defenders. Putting the taller, older guy on him — Steve Donahue felt that was effective.
It would be a mistake to take Brodeur for granted. Has he added layers to his game even lately?
“Absolutely,’’ Donahue said. “I think we all take him for granted. He’s played against Arizona, Providence, Alabama, Villanova, UCF; … it’s 20, 10, 5 every night. He had 20 assists overall in the last two games before this. If there’s a better all-round player, anywhere right now, I’ve got to see him. Against any competition. He’ll start for any team in that [Big East] league. Start for any team in any league. Because he does so many things.
"He’s now 230, came in 215. He’s strong, and confident. I think he’s been the best player in our league for the last couple of years. I’m a little biased. He’s taken another step in defense, handling the ball, shooting. All the things.”
It’s not as if Brodeur wasn’t recruited by the big-time.
“I’ve known him since the eighth grade,’’ Donahue said. “I recruited him at [Boston College]. He had a lot of high major offers. He just wanted Wharton. … It was pretty obvious early on: We’re going to ride this kid for four years.”
Donahue mentioned how every day, Brodeur is there in the locker room, sneakers laced up, ready to go.
And that guy on the other team?
“He’s not a 5 man, but he’s a 5 man in Villanova’s system,’’ Donahue said of Robinson-Earl. “He’s very talented. I thought tonight he showed some grit and toughness, which you don’t know for a freshman. Seems like a real coachable kid. He’s got a great future. And he’s talented — you make a mistake, he’s getting it. … Stamp Villanova on him. That’s what they look like.”