NEW ORLEANS — Brandon Slater, a senior forward at Villanova, is at the Final Four with one goal: winning a national championship.
And if accomplishing that goal means beating some of his former high school teammates, then so be it.
Slater is one of four players in the Final Four who were high school teammates at St. Paul VI Catholic High School in Chantilly, Va. When Slater was a senior during the 2017-18 season, Paul VI also featured the North Carolina guard Anthony Harris and the Duke guards Jeremy Roach and Trevor Keels. Together, they won a state championship.
The group stays in touch via text message during the season to support one another, Slater said, but with a trip to the national championship game on the line, things might not be as friendly this week.
“We keep each other positive throughout the year, and if we so happen to play each other during the year, we’re not as much close buddies,” the 6-foot-7 Slater, who averages 8.3 points and 3.6 rebounds per game for Villanova, said this week in a phone interview.
The Paul VI players — “PVI” as the school is abbreviated — aren’t the only former teammates who will reunite in the national semifinals. The North Carolina sophomore guard R.J. Davis and the Duke freshman forward A.J. Griffin won a New York state championship together in 2018 at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains. The Duke junior wing Wendell Moore Jr. and the North Carolina senior forward Leaky Black played together at Cox Mill High School in Concord, N.C.
Slater and Villanova will face Kansas in the first game on Saturday, while Duke and North Carolina will play in the second game. It is the first time two teams from the same state and the same conference will meet in the Final Four.
Back in Chantilly, Glenn Farello, the head basketball coach at Paul VI, plans to watch the national semifinals on his couch with his 1-year-old daughter Zadie while wearing a navy blue Duke T-shirt under a Villanova pullover. Because Harris is not playing this season while he recovers from an anterior cruciate ligament injury, Farello is free to root for his other former players to meet in a Duke-Villanova national championship game on Monday.
“If we have a Duke-Villanova final, I’m rooting for all three of my guys to be great, and we’ll celebrate with the one and hug up on the others,” Farello said in a phone interview.
He added of his former players: “What’s great about all of these guys is their competitiveness. They’re all guys that are great teammates. It’s so nice to see your guys go on to play with teams that have a winning culture and contribute to it, and do whatever it takes to help the teams because that’s what they did with us here.”
Throughout the 2017-18 season, Slater tried to serve as a role model to his younger teammates — Roach is a sophomore at Duke, Keels a freshman. Slater himself had learned the ropes from Aaron Thompson, his longtime friend who was a year ahead of him at Paul VI and who just completed a five-year career at Butler, where he is the program’s career assists leader.
“Me and him are very close — we talk almost every day if we can, or every week if we can,” Slater said of Thompson. “He definitely taught me how to lead, and when he left, he knew that we still had time to come and had some players coming. We had a young Jeremy Roach, we had a young Trevor Keels, Anthony Harris. And he told me that it’s our time now.”
During that 2017-18 season, the Panthers went 18-0 through the rugged schedule of the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, considered the nation’s best private school prep basketball league. But that February, Slater broke a bone in his shooting hand, his left, sidelining him for the W.C.A.C. playoffs, where Paul VI lost to rival Gonzaga College High School.
He returned with his hand “all padded up,” Farello said, and “couldn’t shoot outside 12 feet.” But he played a key defensive role as the Panthers won the state championship over Bishop O’Connell by 18 points.
Slater knew then that Harris, Roach and Keels were destined for bigger and better things.
“You could just tell how talented those guys were going to be,” Slater said. “Jeremy Roach and Trevor Keels stepped up in big moments.”
Villanova Coach Jay Wright liked that Slater could fill the stat sheet. After Slater notched multiple rebounds, steals and blocks in a game Wright watched, he offered Slater a scholarship. When it came time to choose a college, Slater committed to Villanova because he liked the university’s approach.
“It was so similar in how they preach about teamwork and family,” Slater said. “At Villanova, that’s the biggest thing we have is our family.”
After Slater, high-major coaches continued to recruit Paul VI’s players. Roy Williams, the former North Carolina coach, came through the school for Harris, who committed to the Tar Heels after initially opting for Virginia Tech. He changed course after Coach Buzz Williams left for Texas A&M.
Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff also visited Paul VI to recruit Roach, who committed to play for the Blue Devils in May 2019. On one of Krzyzewski’s visits to see Roach, Farello called Keels into his office so the younger player could meet the Hall of Fame coach. Farello knew Duke was Keels’s dream school.
“He walked in and he was wide-eyed,” Farello recalled. “And as he walked out, I turned to Coach K and I said, ‘I just wanted to make sure you knew who he was, because at some point, I think you might want to circle back with this one.’ And sure enough, they did.”
Keels ultimately committed to Duke in April 2021 and is now one of three Duke freshmen — along with Griffin and Paolo Banchero — expected to be chosen in the first round of this summer’s N.B.A. draft.
Keels, who is built like an N.F.L. linebacker at 6 feet 5 inches and 221 pounds, averages 11.3 points and 3.5 rebounds, while Roach averages 8.6 points and 3.1 assists.
Roach knew they were part of something special with their high school team, and he sensed that bigger things were ahead.
“Four years later, to all end up here in the Final Four, you can’t be more happy than that,” Roach said Friday. “This just shows you how good PVI is.”
Now they’re looking to win another championship on a larger stage.
Keels said in February that the current Blue Devils have “better talent” and “better depth” than the 2015 team that won the national championship, and that this year’s team can “definitely” cut down the nets in Krzyzewski’s final year with the program.
Farello, meanwhile, said he hears from several N.B.A. scouts each week who check in not only about Keels, but also Slater.
Though the Paul VI players are focused on their own teams now, Slater said that, down the road, the group hopefully will learn to appreciate its accomplishments this season.
“When all this is said and done, we’re definitely going to sit back and talk about this forever,” he said.
Source: NY Times