Villanova looks to improve offensively vs. UConn
Freshmen Kris Jenkins (left) and Josh Hart have combined to shoot 63 percent in Villanova's last two postseason games. (USA Today Images)
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The games keep getting bigger and bigger, and Kris Jenkins keeps getting better and better.
Jenkins, a freshman from outside Washington, D.C., has worked himself into Villanova’s rotation over the last couple weeks and given the Wildcats a new weapon in some of their biggest games of the year.
Jenkins was a deep role player for much of the Villanova season, but just when the Wildcats needed him the most, here he is blossoming.
Look at the numbers:
First 29 games: 11 minutes per game, 3.4 points per game, 31 percent from three-point range.
Last four games: 16 minutes per game, 9.3 points per game, 67 percent from three.
Like his fellow freshman Josh Hart, Jenkins has become a key part of Jay Wright’s rotation. While his teammates were shooting 1 for 19 from three-point range in the Wildcats’ NCAA opener against Milwaukee on Thursday, Jenkins hit 3 of 4 three-pointers, helping Villanova finally pull away from the No. 15 seed after a tight first 35 minutes.
In 'Nova’s two postseason games -- Seton Hall in the Big East and Milwaukee in the NCAA -- Jenkins is 7 for 11 from the field and Hart is 10 for 16. That’s a combined 63 percent.
Their upperclass teammates? They’re 33 for 93. That’s a combined 35 percent.
No. 2 seed Villanova plays for a berth in the Sweet 16 on Saturday night with a game against No. 7 seed UConn at the First Niagara Center. Tip-off is scheduled for about 9:40 p.m.
Hart has been playing at a high level for a while now, but for Jenkins, this breakout is the culmination of a long, arduous process that began when he arrived at Villanova in the fall.
Wright was asked Friday how much Jenkins has grown this year, and he pointed out that he’s actually done the opposite.
“Really proud of him, man,” Wright said. “He hasn't grown at all since he stepped on campus. He’s shrunk since he stepped on campus. Forty pounds. He's lost 40 pounds. He worked so hard.
“He's a great shooter, and we knew that. He's a freshman that comes in and can't make shots. Playing defense harder than he ever has in his life. Running the floor harder than he ever has in his life. Not being able to eat candy like he has his whole life. All those things are going on, and he can't make a shot. And he just keeps battling and keeps battling.
“To see him, in these last four or five games find his shot while he's doing all the other things when we need it, it’s been really exciting for me to see him get to that point. I'm really proud of him.”
Jenkins said it wasn’t easy shedding all the pounds, but he knew he wouldn’t have a major role until he did.
He worked throughout the fall and even into the season with Villanova strength coach John Shackleton, hammering his body into the kind of condition needed to play Division 1 basketball on the highest level.
“It was definitely challenging,” Jenkins said. “Just working out, changing my diet, drinking a lot of water, things like that.
“I definitely knew coming in I’d have to do it. Coach Shack and I have a good relationship, just working hard to make sure I lost the weight.”
Not too long ago, Jenkins was close to 300 pounds at 6-foot-6. Now he’s a comfortable 250 to 255 and able to handle those increased minutes without getting gassed.
“I feel a lot better, definitely,” he said. “I’m able to play defense much longer and at a higher level, and I’m able to run the floor at a high level as well.”
This time of year, you see a lot of freshmen disappear under the weight of pressure and expectations.
For the Wildcats, the opposite is true. Hart and Jenkins have forced Wright to change his rotation, earning more and more minutes as the games have become more important.
“They've become a big part of our rotation,” Wright said. “Earlier in the year, Josh Hart came on, he had a little bit of a slump in the middle of the year, and then toward the end of the year, came on strong again. He's been a great spark for us off the bench. He scores. He rebounds. He's a great defender.
“And Kris, he’s just gradually gotten better and better and better to the point now where he's doing a lot of little things. He was not making shots, which is really his greatest strength. He's one of the best shooters on the team. Now he's making shots and really become an invaluable part of our rotation.”
They sure didn’t look like freshmen Thursday night in their first NCAA game.
“Amazing, kind of seems like they’ve been here before,” junior guard Darrun Hilliard said. “It’s just something they have, it’s a great quality. They’re always ready to play and whenever you put them in there, they’re going to make plays for you. It almost seems like they were here with me last year.”