Jay Wright admits he’s surprised to see Villanova with a record of 16-4 and atop the Big East conference at 7-0 heading into Wednesday night’s game at DePaul, especially considering the Wildcats lost four players off of their National Championship team to the NBA.
But there’s one thing about his team that hasn’t surprised him: the emergence of fifth-year senior Phil Booth as the No. 14 ranked Wildcats leading scorer, averaging 18.7 points and 3.9 assists per game. According to Wright, that was the plan all along.
“It just took a while, Phil’s been waiting for this time,” said Wright following Sunday’s 80-52 rout of Seton Hall, whose streak of futility vs. Nova on the road has now reached 25 years. “It’s no surprise to anyone on our team, definitely no surprise for the guys he played with the first four years. Everyone kind of expected this.”
Booth expected it too. He just had no idea the way it would evolve. The kid who was a solid contributor off the bench as a freshman, averaging 5.8 points per game, then expanded his duties his sophomore year—topped when he exploded for 20 points to help beat North Carolina in the 2016 National Championship game—suddenly had his career come to a screeching halt six months later.
Three games into the 2016-2017 season, the 6-foot-3 Booth went to the sidelines with left knee inflammation. He never returned.
“I had to just stay with it, but it definitely took a toll on me,” said the 23-year-old Booth, who wound up redshirting that season, giving him two more seasons of eligibility. “I had to wait for my opportunity.”
It started coming last year when Booth became one of the mainstays on Nova’s latest championship team, averaging 10.0 points per game, though he missed seven games with a hand injury. That took some of the load off Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson’s shoulders, giving the Wildcats yet another option to go alongside them, Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman.
But with those four gone to the pros, suddenly it was left to Booth, Eric Paschall and a bunch of underclassmen to pick up the pieces.
For those who thought they simply wouldn’t fit—especially after the Wildcats were crushed early in the season by Michigan, 73-46, then lost three more before Christmas—reports of their demise seem to have been greatly exaggerated.
“Of course we hear it, but we don’t talk about it,” said Booth, who grew up in Baltimore, Maryland idolizing Kobe Bryant, though their respective games are totally different. “We say every season is a different journey.”
“I’ve been around it a lot. It’s the young guys who haven’t been through it,” he said. “It’s a different team. We don’t know where we’re going to be by the end of the season, so we’ve just got to take every day and try to get better.”
One thing the rest of the Wildcats need to do is stop deferring to Booth and Paschall, who scored 26 of their 30 first-half points vs. The Hall. Ironically, that’s precisely what Booth, used to do.
“It’s funny I’m saying this now because I had to do the same thing with him as a freshman and sophomore,” recalled Wright, whose club has won eight straight since back-to-back December losses to Penn and Kansas. “When we had Mikal and Jalen he would do the same things.”
Booth now passes the same gospel onto Collin Gillespie, Saddiq Bey, and Jahvon Quinerly that Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart and the rest passed onto him.
“I talk to them but don’t really relate that so much,” said Booth, who at one point with Nova in command, 53-26, had scored 25 points to Seton Hall’s 26, “A lot of different stuff goes on from then. That team played different, I just tell them to be aggressive.”
However, as long as Booth and Paschall lead the way, though, Wright likes his team’s chances.
“A lot of this has to do with Eric and Phil,” said Wright, who admits he never fully gets to appreciate any of his team’s accomplishments until the season’s over and he can look back. “I think they’re two of the best players in the country. I know teams are really dialed into stopping those two.”
Booth especially, who’s playing like a guy who just might be joining the rest of his former teammates in the NBA a year from now. “That would be really nice,” he smiled. “Hopefully, I’ll be back here playing.”
After all, he’s gone through getting to this point, nobody would be surprised.