HOUSTON — One of the biggest storylines — and certainly the most endearing one — heading into Monday night’s national title game is the brotherly bond/very real rivalry of Kris Jenkins and Nate Britt.
The former is a multifaceted weapon and key defensive cog for Villanova. The latter is a role player for UNC, and in the past two days, Britt has become as sought-after a quote as any Tar Heel. Quite a turn for a guy who averages less than 16 minutes per game.
But that’s what happens when you wind up playing your brother — by law — on college basketball’s biggest stage.
“It’s been the greatest decision that ever happened in my life,” Jenkins said. “For us to compete against each other tomorrow, it’s something special for our family.”
Let’s further explore as to how we got here — because Kris Jenkins almost never did. First, there was the move to take him away from his South Carolina home and put him up with the Britts, in Maryland, in 2006.
Imagine doing that. Imagine asking that of another family.
It’s what Jenkins’ mother, Felicia, felt she needed to do. She grew up around basketball. Played and coached it. She saw potential in her son and trust in the Britt parents, Nate Sr. and Melody.
Jenkins legally became Britt’s brother in 2007, not even a year after moving to Maryland.
“A lot of the credit goes to my mom, my dad and the Britts,” Jenkins said. “They didn’t want me to be one-dimensional. They wanted me to play inside and out. Just be a basketball player. Not let a position label me as just one thing.”
Villanova has blitzed its way on a historic level to its first national title game in 31 years, in some part, because of Jenkins’ ever-improving reliable performances over the final fourth of the season. He’s shooting 57 percent (!), averaging 15.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.4 steals in the tournament. From 3-point range, he’s 15-of-31. He’s also 100 percent from the foul line (10-for-10) in his past five games.
He can help guard four of five positions and will serve as a matchup mystery for Roy Williams. You can make the argument that Ryan Arcidiacono or Josh Hart are more valuable than Jenkins, but on the whole, he’s probably going to be the most important player for Villanova against Carolina.
“On the court he’s always been a guy who understands team defense,” assistant Baker Dunleavy said. “Really smart. … We feel really comfortable playing through him. Obviously he can catch-and-shoot 3s, but when we put the ball in his hands he’s a really good decision-maker.”
He’s Villanova’s most diverse player, the guy always trusted to be the inbounder in late-game situations.
And he didn’t initially plan on going to Villanova. Jenkins wanted offers to play at the major local programs around D.C. and Maryland, but they didn’t pursue him. What’s more, Villanova only came to recruit him by accident — after chasing Britt first, then finding out who Jenkins was when the Britt family came on a visit when Britt and Jenkins were high school sophomores.
“We were recruiting Nate,” Jay Wright said Sunday. “We liked Kris, but we thought, He’s overweight and he’s not going to want to do all the stuff we do. ‘Do you mind if we bring him?’ Yeah, we love him. When we met with Nate, we met with Kris. You heard all the things we’re saying to Nate, but you’re going to have to come in here and work hard, get your body fat tested. That’s what we want you to do. As the recruiting went on, Nate Britt Sr. said, Kris loved it. If he loved that, we want this guy.”
He can bench press 275 pounds and can trap-bar deadlift — and also squat — 450. His lower-body strength is the strongest on the team. Now he can stay on the floor for longer stretches. He’s always been a good shooter from long range. He takes the right shots and doesn’t ever swallow the ball.
“He’s always been a hard worker, it’s just a matter of him being pushed and being accountable,” Villanova assistant Ashley Howard said. “You talk about the ‘freshman 15’ going to college, right? That dude went to college and lost 25, 30 pounds.”
The body change. Another massive reason why Jenkins has been such a factor this year. Jenkins was fat and a liability when he finished high school. He had significant talent — he’s always been a shooter, no matter his size — but got to Villanova with a weight hovering around 280 pounds.
“Kris used to eat anything you put in front of him,” Britt said. “Now he pays attention and is more aware about the things that he’s eating, tries to stick to water more.”
At his most recent weigh-in, Jenkins was at 247 pounds according to Villanova strength coach John Shackleton. That’s the man who has had the biggest impact on Jenkins’ life in the past three years. They’re together nearly as much as Jenkins is with his teammates. Jenkins credits Shackleton wither altering not only his health weight but his perspective on how to live life after basketball.
“That had always been a goal that we had for Kris,” Britt said. “He has a knack for scoring, and we always wanted him to get his weight down so he could be more mobile. Every summer — because we don’t see each other through the year; he’s at Nova, I’m at Carolina – but every summer he comes home, I can see how much he’s trimmed.”
Artificial juice drinks and an appetite for any and all food put Jenkins in such a tough spot when he got on campus. Despite his natural basketball talent, he couldn’t break through into the rotation significantly in the past two years because he wasn’t in good enough condition to usurp older players. Now he’s held accountable by the scale, being weighed almost every morning, and whatever the scale reads determines how much cardio he endures. Inclines on the treadmill with the heavy vests have been a part of his body refitting over the past three years.
“Kris never feared physical work,” Dunleavy said. “You could put him through torture. I think his challenge was always with his eating habits and diet.”
That willingness to put his body through hell has slowed some of Jenkins’ progress to staunch shape. He still has at least a dozen more pounds to drop and more upper body strength to add, but the changes to this point are still startling. The goal is to get him under 235 pounds next season and to have his body fat less than 10 percent, which would amount to incredible progress from the first semester of his freshman year — when he was at 24.
“I believe he’s the player he is right now because of all the sacrifices he made as a 19-year-old kid in college,” Howard said.
It didn’t click right away, and it’s still a fight, but the education and dedication has been paying off more by the month. Throughout this tournament — even removing the national semifinals — few players have been as all-around impressive as Jenkins.
“He’ll do what you ask of him, because he respects you,” Shackleton said. “Very coachable. I love being around him.”
He’ll wind up being Villanova’s most valuable player next season. It’s hard to be labeled a “breakout” guy as a senior, but Jenkins should fit the description perfectly next season. Expect another big jump.
“I think you haven’t even seen the best of him yet,” Wright said. “He’s one of the great examples to anybody in our program. It’s why everybody in the team respects him so much. He’s a clown when he wants to be. But on the basketball court, they respect the hell out of him because they see how he’s changed his lifestyle, how he’s worked out every morning extra, how he’s taken everything we’ve asked him to do. It’s really impressive.”
As for the game against Britt, Jenkins had a coy bravado to him on Sunday. The brother-vs.-brother angle took over media day here at NRG Stadium. In a 20-minute breakout-room session, Britt took more than 20 questions on it.
“I do hope he plays well and hope he’s injury-free and things like that, but there’s nobody in the world that I want to beat more than my brother,” Jenkins said. “So … yeah.”
He hasn’t yet, and doesn’t plan on, communicating before the game with Britt. No talking. Only well-intentioned enmity as buildup to the biggest game of both of their lives. It feels natural to have made it to this point, but Jenkins’ path is the most unlikely of any player that will step on that floor come Monday night.