Kern: 'Nova's Jenkins just keeps getting better

Villanova's Kris Jenkins battles for a rebound with Xavier's RaShid Gaston

THERE WERE a whole slew of reasons why Villanova was the best team in the country for last year's three weeks of Madness.

There was the senior leadership of Ryan Arcidiacono and the extremely underrated Daniel Ochefu. There was the emergence of Josh Hart as perhaps the star of the tournament. And the growth of redshirt freshman Mikal Bridges as a difference-making sixth man. There was the understated maturity of talented true freshman Jalen Brunson, who deferred to his elders without sacrificing the qualities that made him such a coveted recruit. Yet maybe most of all, there was the elevation of Kris Jenkins' game, particularly from the arc. It changed much of what the Wildcats could and eventually did become.

And that was before he made arguably the most memorable shot in Final Four history to bring the ultimate trophy back to the Main Line for the first time in 31 years.

Now it's another season, his last. So where does he take it next?

It's a good problem to have, if you don't allow it to turn into a consuming burden.

"It's been amazing, actually," said coach Jay Wright, after his third-ranked team tied a program record by winning its 46th consecutive game at the Pavilion on Tuesday night, 79-54, over No. 15 Xavier. "What you see (from him) is not an act. He's humble. He's told me, 'In 30 years, I'll talk about (that championship shot), I promise.' "

But not yet. Not while there are still more things to chase before he leaves as a big part of the most successful Wildcats class.

"It's been a gradual progression (this season)," Wright continued. "He's learned how to expand his game. He's doing a lot of other things. Earlier in his career, we really weren't asking him to do much else (except make shots). He's becoming complete. But he's bailed us out a lot (from the perimeter). Unfortunately, it does lift us. It's something we rely on. He kept us in it, loosened things up.

"He's a lot more than just a scorer. But all some people see is him making shots. When he does that and gets six defensive rebounds, we're good."

Or even potentially great once again. When the Wildcats were down six after 14 minutes, Jenkins nailed a three-pointer from the right wing. Then he followed with a two from almost the same spot. By halftime, the 'Cats were up six. He opened the second half with another triple. And when the Musketeers closed to within 10 midway through the half, he made the last of his four threes (on eight attempts).

There was no need for him to do much more, as the 'Cats scored 17 of the next 23 to avenge their loss at Xavier last February in the teams' previous meeting.

"I give the credit to my teammates," said Jenkins, who finished with 20 points on 5-for-10 shooting in 32 minutes, to go with those six boards Wright mentioned. "They do a great job in practice, and I think it translates over to the game . . . 

"Every shot feels the same to me. I think it's going in. (My teammates) find me in the right spots. Most of my shots come from them."

Fair enough. But somebody still has to put it in the basket.

Last season, he averaged 18.4 over the final 15 games, scoring in double figures every time. He averaged just over 14 in Big East play, and made 43 percent of his treys. In five conference games so far this season, he's at 17.4 (to get to 13.8 overall) and shooting 42.5 from deep. In the previous game against Marquette, he had a season-high 23. He might have surpassed that this time, had he not taken a shot to the head with 8:49 remaining. And two of the other Big East games were at Top 10 Creighton and Top 20 Butler.

Timing does matter. And want-to. Why should he settle for being the best "One Shining Moment" ever?

"As long as you're playing the game, you know you can always improve," Jenkins said. "Every guy on this team wants to be great. Or they wouldn't be here, I promise you that.

"The thing I live up to is the commitment to my teammates. That's the mentality of everyone out here. When you're a senior, it probably means a little bit more.

"If you focus on defense and rebounds, most of the time you'll win. You have to prepare for the game that you don't make shots. That's what I live for. Then you have to grind it out. It feels good to get stops at the other end."

He wouldn't be wrong. But sometimes there's nothing misguided about letting it fly, either. Especially when it's in the proper hands. You can always ask North Carolina about that.


kernm@phillynews.com

@mikekerndn

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