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Chasing The Shot

How will Kris Jenkins and Villanova try to top last year’s buzzer-beating, heart-stopping NCAA title run? By temporarily forgetting that it ever happened.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Somebody was ready to party. It was April 4, 2016, and a hotly contested NCAA title game between Villanova and North Carolina appeared to be over. But before a video review could confirm that a tie-breaking 3-pointer had been released prior to time expiring, an anonymous hero turned the NRG Stadium scoreboard into the world’s biggest confetti dispenser. “Whoever hit the button deserves all the credit,” said former Wildcats point guard Ryan Arcidiacono. “That dude’s got balls.”

Moments earlier, it looked like the celebration would have to be delayed. UNC senior guard Marcus Paige had just sank a floating, double-pumping 3 to tie the score with 4.7 seconds left. Even a fan who pays attention to college basketball for only the five minutes that it takes to fill out a bracket likely can remember exactly what came next.

After junior forward Kris Jenkins inbounded him the ball, Arcidiacono used six dribbles and a screen by senior forward Daniel Ochefu to quickly reach the frontcourt. The senior then shoveled a pass back to a trailing Jenkins, who immediately launched a 24-footer. The parabolic jumper fell through the net as the siren blared, giving Villanova a 77–74 victory and its first national championship since 1985.

At that point, the ring of high-definition screens hanging from the dome’s ceiling began spewing fireworks, confetti, and streamers. “It was extremely loud,” Jenkins said. And according to some, extremely risky. “It was a huge miscue, unleashing the confetti before the officials had officially declared the game over,” Luke DeCock wrote in The (Raleigh) News & Observer. “NRG Stadium and the NCAA dodged a real bullet when it turned out Jenkins’ shot was indeed good upon review.” The columnist also reported that as a result of the not-actually-mistimed confetti explosion in Houston, College Football Playoff chief operating officer Michael Kelly planned to start equipping his staff with leaf blowers. (A spokesperson for the NCAA, an organization that’s as humorlessly officious as the IRS, declined my request to interview a member of its game-operations department.)

These days, Villanova head coach Jay Wright is still convinced that the jubilation his team felt was slightly premature. “I thought they were gonna put more time on the clock,” he said with a smile. On the matter of the floor debris, Wright added: “I thought they were gonna have to clean all that up.”

Alas, the party continued. For the suburban Philadelphia university’s supporters, it’s raged on uninterrupted. “The fans will celebrate forever,” said current Big East deputy commissioner and former Villanova athletic director Vince Nicastro, who hired Wright in 2001.

An NCAA tournament buzzer-beater is the ultimate sports flashbulb memory. In even the most stoic and unaffiliated, watching one unfold can cause an uncontrollable emotional response. Each last-second basket has its own often mythological backstory. Jenkins’s is unique. After all, his game winner clinched a national title. “I’m biased, clearly,” Arcidiacono said, “but it’s the best shot in college basketball history.”

And now it’s in the past. America may enjoy reliving the moment; since it was posted, the official clip of the NCAA tournament winner has more than 2.5 million YouTube views — but those involved in making it happen don’t have that option. Even with the shot fresh in their minds, they’ve had to move on. Some have been able to do it from a distance. Others don’t have the luxury. To move forward, they’ve had to sweep out all the excess bits of joy. The confetti has stopped falling. For now.

As soon as the ball dropped through the nylon, Jenkins’s shot became legendary. It wasn’t just a shot. It’s The Shot. Or one of ’em, at least: the Wikipedia page for The Shot lists it alongside Laettner’s jumper, Bryce Drew’s deep 3 that gave Valparaiso an upset win over Ole Miss in 1998, and Mario Chalmers’s trey that sent the title game between Kansas and Memphis to overtime in 2008.

While Villanova celebrated, CBS analyst Bill Raftery, as is his wont, shouted, “How ’bout those onions?” In mid-April, Andy Katz of ESPN led Arcidiacono, Ochefu, and Jenkins in a reenactment of the title game’s final seconds. There’s even a version of the sequence that’s made of Lego.

By now, reporters have typed thousands upon thousands of words about the newest incarnation of The Shot. Each ticktock is slightly different — Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated, Marc Tracy of The New York Times, and Dana O’Neil of ESPN (in her book) all wrote compelling recaps — but the key details are the same. The week of the 2016 Final Four, Villanova practiced the play it used to spring Jenkins as part of its regular late-game simulation called Wildcat Minute. It was dubbed “Nova,” and Wright’s stellar 2009 team already had run a variation of it to perfection. As overtime loomed against North Carolina, the call was obvious.

But after the Wildcats broke their huddle, Ochefu had work to do. While futilely diving for a steal before Paige pulled up for his fateful shot, the big man had created a puddle of sweat near midcourt by press row. So he grabbed a ball boy’s mop and vigorously dried the wet spot. That general area is where Ochefu set the screen that helped clear a path for Arcidiacono, who eventually drew two defenders, Joel Berry II and Isaiah Hicks. Facing a double-team, the point guard flipped the ball back to Jenkins. As the ball left his hands, cameras caught a mesmerized Wright mouthing the word “bang.” “Stone cold,” Ochefu told SI. “That deserves to be a meme forever.”

For the last 11 months, as the story of his greatest career achievement has been rehashed ad nauseam, Wright made sure there was no letdown. Powered by Jenkins, senior guard Josh Hart, sophomore swingman Mikal Bridges, and sophomore point guard Jalen Brunson, the Wildcats (31–3) won both the Big East regular-season and tournament titles.

None of this surprises their coach, who on the sideline is cooler than a Philly water ice on a July afternoon. During Villanova’s regular-season finale against Georgetown, Wright kept his custom, gray-pinstripe, three-piece suit sweat free. After the Wildcats defeated the Hoyas 81–55 at Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., he explained why he thinks his team has managed to stay so focused. “I don’t think I would be qualified to say this unless we went through it,” he said, “but the journey of being able to play and take on challenges is actually more fun than celebrating.” Wright is supremely polished, and he’s honed this message to a point finer that than the tip of one of the little silver swords embroidered on his tie. But he isn’t wrong. His players have seemingly moved on.

That doesn’t mean life is exactly the same as it was before The Shot. Wright, for one, is having a moment. In February, he became the latest high-profile coach to release a motivational autobiography. He also was the subject of a recent GQ profile, in which author Larry Platt wrote that the now salt-and-pepper-haired coach cuts a “somewhat George Clooney-esque figure.” (Hart actually dubbed him GQ Jay” a year ago.) It wouldn’t be surprising to soon see him starring in credit card commercials.

For others, the changes have been slightly less glamorous. Less than a year ago, Arcidiacono couldn’t go out to breakfast on the Main Line without dozens of people asking for photos. After his food arrived, he said, “I couldn’t eat it for like 20 minutes.” Now a member of the Austin Spurs of the NBA Development League, he continues to be recognized in arenas around the country. Opponents don’t even tease him about it. After all, Arcidiacono said, “How can they talk shit to me when I won the national championship?” Still, the Philadelphia native knows his days as a superstar are over. As an undrafted free agent last summer, he signed with the San Antonio Spurs. A week before the season started, they released him.

“I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t different at all,” said Arcidiacono, who turns 23 this month. “At Villanova you travel first class. You have your own plane. In the D-League you have to travel on the team bus. You have to fly commercial. It’s a grind for everyone.”

At the NBA draft last June, all 30 clubs also passed on Ochefu. But after signing with the Wizards and playing on their summer league team, he made the regular-season roster. In 2016–17, the 23-year-old rookie from Baltimore has appeared in 15 games and logged just 49 total minutes. He claims not to reminisce about last year’s glory.

“I don’t think about it,” he told me.

Still, Ochefu has found his past is hard to avoid. As we spoke outside Washington’s locker room at Verizon Center after an early March shootaround, Villanova and his old teammates were in the same building, practicing ahead of their matchup with Georgetown.

When Felicia Jenkins slipped past a security guard and finally found her son on the floor of NRG Stadium that historic evening last spring, she asked him one question: “What the fuck did you just do?”

What Kris Jenkins did went beyond merely sinking an NCAA tournament-winning buzzer-beater. He created a moment that may be impossible to top. His boldness during the final play of the title game — Jenkins loudly called for the ball — didn’t surprise Arcidiacono. “Kris has always had the confidence from the first day that he got to Villanova that he was the best shooter in the gym,” Arcidiacono said. “[The Shot] only helped him prove his point.”

With a year of eligibility left at Villanova, he returned last spring as a legend. On campus, students approached him constantly. “It’s humbling that people want to speak to you and ask you questions about something that you worked extremely hard for,” said Jenkins, who during last season’s tournament shot a blistering 48.6 percent (17-of-35) from 3-point range. “I would just say that it’s an honor. It can be good if it doesn’t get to your head, which it hasn’t.” Somehow, all the attention he received didn’t overwhelm him. “He was the same guy before the shot,” said his mother, a high school basketball coach in South Jersey, “as he was after the shot.”

Rather than coasting last summer, Jenkins reportedly shed weight and added muscle to his 6-foot-6 frame. And as the season approached, he began to good-naturedly brush off leftover praise. For the time being, that’s meant publicly distancing himself from The Shot. Joe Juliano, who covers Villanova for The Philadelphia Inquirer, noticed the change in October at Big East media day. “He did indeed adopt a series of talking points by that time, preferring instead to discuss what’s coming (a new season) instead of what’s already happened, even if it was a national championship,” the writer said in an email. “That hasn’t changed much.”

Juliano was onto something. In December, New York Times columnist Juliet Macur quoted Jenkins: “I don’t want The Shot to be the best thing I ever do in my life, to be the highlight of everything I do in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy about it. I just don’t dwell on it.” When I recently spoke to Jenkins, he said, “That one shot isn’t the highlight of my life, and I don’t want it to be. I just want to continue to get better.” When asked about The Shot before the Big East Tournament last week, he quipped to reporters, “What shot? I’ve made a lot of shots.”

Staying on message like that takes practice. Jenkins has had plenty. Over the last year, he’s given dozens of interviews. “You definitely get used to them,” said the South Carolina native, who spent his high school years in suburban D.C. “You get better and better with each one.”

Jenkins told me that pressure comes not from the media but rather “from within,” although that doesn’t mean he’s always immune to it. During a three-game stretch against Marquette, Virginia, and Providence in late January and early February, he made only four of 29 total field goal attempts. He snapped out of the mini-slump quickly, though, and heads into the NCAA tournament averaging 13.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 2 assists per game.

When Jenkins does need to relax, he follows a routine that’s familiar to most 23-year-old college seniors. He’ll go to the gym to shoot around, take walks, or fire up NBA2K, Madden, and Call of Duty on his PlayStation 4. And if they’re watching a college hoops game on television and a promo featuring The Shot pops up on the screen, he’ll usually crack this joke: “Oh wow, I wonder if I’m getting paid for that.” Considering how often the replay is shown, Jenkins’s buddies are probably getting tired of the bit.

In the college basketball universe, Villanova has long been considered an underdog. That clichéd designation is difficult to shake. Not after 1985, when the Rollie Massimino–coached Wildcats famously upset Patrick Ewing and Georgetown in the NCAA title game, and 2016, when Wright’s club became the first in 29 years to win it all without a first-round draft pick.

In reality, Villanova was never a plucky upstart. “This narrative that it’s the little engine that could is not something that we were particularly proud of,” said Nicastro, whose former school recently approved a $60 million renovation of its on-campus arena, The Pavilion. “It was always a big-time national program.” Consider: The Wildcats have played in five Final Fours, including the first one in 1939. Under Massimino in the ’70s and ’80s, they made it to the Elite Eight five times. With Wright at the helm, they’ve reached the tournament 12 of the last 13 seasons.

In other words: The Big Five may not matter nearly as much as it once did, and WIP callers may not kvetch about the Wildcats like they do about the Eagles, but Villanova is a powerhouse. And now the program is facing its biggest challenge: attempting to win a second straight national title. The NCAA tournament’s no. 1 overall seed, the Wildcats will face the winner of New Orleans and Mount St. Mary’s in the first round of the East Regional in Buffalo on Thursday. Jenkins knows that now is not the time to fall back on past accomplishments, no matter how spectacular they may be.

“I’ve never heard Kris Jenkins talk about The Shot unless he’s asked for an interview,” Wright said. “He doesn’t even joke with his guys [about it]. If they’re playing a shooting game, I’ve never heard him say, ‘I hit The Shot.’ Ever.”

“When I’m done playing basketball, I’ll parade that around,” Jenkins said, “but until then, I’m just focused on this team.” At this point, he’s not ready to start trading on a single moment of glory. For now, he’d rather try to create another one.