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Villanova's Ticket to Final Four Contingent on Kris Jenkins

The junior has thrived in the second half of the season and must remain on a roll for the Wildcats to reach Houston.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

With an 87-68 win over Iowa in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Villanova reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in seven seasons. Back in 2009, the Wildcats raced all the way to the Final Four, losing to North Carolina, who won the national championship two nights later.

If head coach Jay Wright and his crew want to reach that same stage, Kris Jenkins needs to continue to play a large role on both ends of the floor.

Over the first 16 games of the season, Jenkins averaged 12.2 points per game, shooting just 36.6 percent from the field and 29.3 percent from deep. While the 6-foot-6 forward took a step up in production from his sophomore campaign, when he added 6.3 points per contest, the junior fired up more shots, as well. Jenkins launched 8.2 shots per game during that stretch, compared to 4.5 a season ago.

Following that period, Jenkins started to exhibit a newfound bundle of confidence. In the last 20 games, he has delivered 16.3 points per contest, but most notably, poured in his shots at a 53.4 percent clip and 43.4 percent from behind the arc. Plus, the Maryland native scored in double figures in 19 of those matchups.

A few of those performances came at a critical time: the Big East Tournament. Jenkins compiled 15 points against Georgetown in the quarterfinals, 21 points versus Providence in the semifinals, and 23 points in a loss to Seton Hall in the title game. Moreover, against the Pirates, he knocked down a three-pointer with under a minute to go, appearing to hand the Wildcats back-to-back crowns in the realigned Big East. Yet, Isaiah Whitehead responded with an and-one bucket, putting his team in position to steal the win.

Jenkins has shown off his shooting touch in March Madness, too, combining for 27 points on 10-of-17 from the field and 5-of-9 from downtown against UNC Ashville and Iowa.

Additionally, as the junior improved with his decision-making this season, Villanova's ball movement represented a wonderful display of cohesiveness. The Wildcats have totaled 593 assists through 36 games, ranking ninth most in Division I. Versus the Hawkeyes, Wright's group assisted on 23 of its 32 made shots.

The forward has revealed an inclination to not just settle for jumpers from behind the arc, but also, drive the ball into the lane to create for his colleagues. For a man who sits at 240 pounds, his lateral quickness is quite impressive. Jenkins' assist numbers have seen a reasonable spike, as well, jumping from just under one per game in 2014-15 to 2.2 this season. This mindset was evident against Iowa, collecting a team-high six assists.

Since opposing defenders can't guarantee that Jenkins will pull up once he catches the ball on the perimeter, Ryan ArcidiaconoJosh Hart, and Jalen Brunson become even more lethal. The three Wildcats all shoot at least 35.6 percent from deep, led by Brunson, who strokes it at a 38 percent clip.

On the opposite side of the hardwood, Villanova ranks 15th in Division I in scoring defense, holding opponents to only 63.6 points per game. The Wildcats' defensive intensity relies upon swiping their hands into the passing lanes. The team forced a combined 27 turnovers against UNC Ashville and Iowa, leading to 41 points. Jenkins' activity helped, totaling three steals in the two matchups.

Furthermore, Jenkins, Arcidiancono, Hart and the rest of the bunch all exhibit a willingness to gamble because of Daniel Ochefu's presence inside. The center averages 1.6 blocks per game and gathered six in the first weekend of the Big Dance.

Villanova faces Miami in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night. If Wright and company pull out the victory, they'd battle either Kansas or Maryland in the Elite 8. Each of these four teams owns a terrific backcourt. Thus, the consistency of their frontcourts could be the difference-maker.

If the Wildcats want to represent the South Region in Houston, Jenkins must keep his defenders guessing by taking the opposition off the dribble and showing off his range, along with bringing energy on defense.