The intense spotlight of the NCAA tournament can swallow up even the best freshmen unaccustomed to playing in such pressure-packed games when an error can end a season. It had to be even hotter for Villanova freshmen Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges given all that was on the line for the Wildcats last weekend in Brooklyn.
For Brunson and Bridges, however, their coolness in the heat was noticeable. The first two rounds for them merely came down to next game, next game. Now it's on to the Sweet 16 in Louisville, Ky., and a South Regional semifinal against Miami, which is - you guessed it - next game.
Brunson, a 6-foot-2 guard, scored 22 points and dished out seven assists in the wins over UNC-Asheville and Iowa while shooting 52.9 percent from the field and draining 4 of 7 three-point attempts. The 6-5 Bridges hit 61.5 percent of his shots while scoring 18 points with six rebounds and two steals.
"You're involved in the moment when you're coaching in the NCAA tournament because it's such a big game," 'Nova coach Jay Wright said Monday. "But after the game, you sit back and think, 'Wow, these freshmen are going to be really good.' I was really impressed with both of them. They were dialed in, they were not nervous, and they were aggressive and productive."
Although he's only 19, Brunson is accustomed to big moments. He led Stevenson High School to the Illinois Class 4A state championship last season and won Mr. Basketball honors in the state. He captured the most valuable player award in the 2015 Under-19 World Championship after leading Team USA to the gold medal.
So an NCAA tournament game isn't going to faze him.
"The feeling was the same, that it's just our next game," he said. "To me, I was just happy to be able to win and keep advancing and be able to play another game. I just feel like I've been in a lot of high-pressure situations and I think I'm able to stay poised in those situations."
Brunson said his coaches - Stevenson's Pat Ambrose; Team USA's Sean Miller, the head coach at Arizona; and now Wright - have helped him as well as his father, former Temple and NBA star Rick Brunson.
"It's been a great experience with great coaches and they've really helped me step forward," he said. "It's the time I've spent with them - I'd been with Coach Ambrose for four years and Coach Miller for two, played for Team USA both summers. I've known Coach Wright for a while. It doesn't feel like a year, it feels way longer than that."
Bridges, who played his high school ball at Great Valley, redshirted last year but took part in everything but the games when the Wildcats played in the NCAAs in Pittsburgh. He said he learned one basic detail.
"You can't slip up," he said. "Teams are ready. Everybody is at their best so you can't slip up one bit. You've got to stick to what you do for 40 minutes and if you don't, you get sent home and you're done for the rest of the season."
Bridges said it was the encouragement from his coaches and teammates that gave him the confidence to perform, especially being more of a designated defensive stopper as the season went on.
Both freshmen were thrilled for the senior class in helping get the Wildcats to the second weekend.
"It felt great knowing that I got to help the winningest class in Villanova history, to be able to be a part of that. It's something special," Brunson said.
"It was great," said Bridges. "I know they're mentally strong. I know deep down that they think about it but they didn't say it out loud to us. But I'm just happy we got the W and we played really hard."