SAN ANTONIO –– The Villanova Wildcats are in the house. Can you get a whiff of the aura?
Practice is over Thursday, and sitting there in the corner of the locker room is Jalen Brunson, the Academic All-American with the 3.34 grade point average. The guy who put off the draft for another crack at this weekend, and his degree. “The NBA is not going anywhere. I can wait,” he said last fall, and when’s the last time you heard a college star say that?
Near him is Phil Booth, the hard-luck case who has missed 40 games in two seasons with injuries, but is still the guy who scored 20 points in the national championship game two years ago.
There’s Jay Wright, the coach with the Italian tailor.
And these guys are the princes of darkness in college basketball?
They have lost 21 games in five seasons. They have owned the Big East, except for subleasing the regular season title out this year to Xavier. They had their One Shining Moment 24 months ago, and now they’re back, storming to San Antonio with a string of double-digit point wins. No one has looked more regal, no one more ladder-ready to cut down the nets.
They love to play defense, even as they close in on the all-time 3-point record. On the court, they exude toughness and togetherness, off the course a sense of mission. Nobody has done it better lately. Nobody.
Who to ask to explain what it’s all about? How about the guy sitting at the end in his locker still, with a sweaty uniform after a hard workout? He looks familiar.
Oh, yeah. Kris Jenkins.
He’s not on the roster anymore, but he’s on the immortal list at Villanova. The man who famously beat the buzzer with a 3-pointer two years ago to give the Wildcats the national championship. He's been working out with the Wildcats; even ran with the scout team Thursday. Not every day you see a Final Four hero running scout team two years later at another Final Four.
“No comment,” he says. “I was me.”
But sure, he understands what Villanova's aura is about. He was part of it.
“You’ve got to be special to come here,” he says. “If you come here, then you’re accepting that. We don’t do it necessarily the conventional way. It’s all about team. It’s all about family. It’s all about the program here. When you come to a place like Villanova, you come to learn that, you grow with that, you love that. It becomes a part of you, it stays in your heart forever.”
One play exemplifies it. The play that will never, ever leave him.
It wasn’t just his shot that finished off North Carolina in 2016 in Houston. Two other things about that moment.
One, the pass. Ryan Arcidiacono was the senior with the ball in his hands. Probably 99 out of 100 seniors would have taken the shot themselves. But he understood the correct play, the winning play. So he turned and pitched to an open Jenkins, because it was the right thing to do.
Two, the spectator. Watching from the bench at that moment was Jalen Brunson. He wanted to be in the game, probably even thought he should be. But he was cheering loudly from the sideline. Never a word of disagreement.
“It’s what our program is about,” Jenkins says. “We have a senior leader who’s hit game-winners before, who has elevated our program; our program is where it is because of guys like Ryan Arcidiacono. For him to make what he thought was the right play – nobody else did, we gave him the ball, and said we’re going to give you screen, you win the game for us. And he won the game for us.”
Across the locker room, Brunson is talking about that play too. Sure, he would have loved to have been out there. But . . .
“That was us playing off each other. It’s us not really worrying about who gets the credit. It’s us playing 40 minutes to the last second. It was a big part of what Villanova basketball is.”
Two years later, they’re back, and it’s a pretty fair bet that Brunson will be on the floor if the score is tied in the last seconds. That’s changed. But Villanova hasn’t. Not what it is all about.
You hear it Thursday from the national player of the year.
“It’s not easy. It doesn’t just naturally come into place,” Brunson says. “It’s a culmination of going through it all year. It’s us trying to get better every day and not really worrying about individual things, like honors or what our future is going to be like. We’re just focused on how we can make each other better and how we can keep doing that every day.”
You hear it from the program’s director of operations, who was one of Wright’s first players at Villanova and has watched the whole thing blossom.
“I think our identity has been our toughness, our togetherness,” Mike Nardi says. “Whether we win or whether we lose, we like to be able to come into the locker room at the end of the day and just know that we all gave it up for each other.
“I was one of the guys who started early on with Coach in his career and we weren’t that. The foundation was playing harder than our opponents and playing more together.”
And you hear it from the man who delivered Villanova’s greatest moment in this century.
“Our program is playing hard, playing together, playing smart and having pride,” Jenkins says.
His pro career did not go well his first try. He plans a hard off-season of working out with Villanova’s strength coach, to have another go next season. “Kris Jenkins just has a way of making everything difficult,” Jenkins says. “With that being said, I always hit what people consider to be rock bottom, and I always come back. So stay tuned.”
“That’ll never bother me,” he says. “Eventually I want to be married and have kids, and when my kids see moments like that, then they’ll know that their dad was a good player.
“It’s humbling, if that makes sense. I didn’t expect any of it. I still can’t even describe how the shot fell. I still don’t know."
But this day is not about the past, but rather the present Wildcat team. He is here to do a TV pregame show, to root, and Thursday to help with practice at the Alamodome. The Wildcats are in the house, aura, Kris Jenkins and all.