Villanova still the team to beat despite loss of Phil Booth

You know all about the dogs, who’ll be sporting masks rather than wings when the Eagles head to the Super Bowl. But don’t forget about the Cats.

Because Villanova is already No. 1 throughout the land. And giving no inclination of relinquishing that distinction anytime soon. If only because they’re getting used to having that bull’s-eye on their chests. 

“The good thing is we went through this last year and kind of learned from it,” said Jay Wright after the 19-1 Wildcats solidified their hold on the top spot Tuesday with a 89-69 win over Providence that was a lot tougher than it sounds. “You watch film and teams will play different styles against you and play at a much higher intensity level. So the team you get is not the team you see on film all the time. But I think we’re handling it better this year.”

Over the last three seasons Nova has held the No. 1 ranking 16 weeks, six of the past seven this season. Rather than stumbling, for the most part they’ve been beating up the opposition, pounding Georgetown and Connecticut into submission on the road last week by 32 and 20 points respectively. But Wright knows there will come a time when the Cats will have to claw for their lives.

And it might come sooner than later after word came out yesterday afternoon that starting guard Phil Booth, who missed most of last season with a knee injury, will be out indefinitely. The 6-foot-5 Booth, averaging 11.6 points while shooting at a 43.0 percent clip from 3-point range, fractured his shooting  hand some time during the second half

That will surely test the depth of a team not that deep to begin with, though freshman guard Collin Gillespie, who recently returned from a wrist injury figures to be pressed into more duty.

Wright can only hope the Cats, who overcame an early 24-15 deficit with a 22-2 run, then broke open a 44-41 game in the second half to win gojng away, can maintain their current pace

To do so they’ll likely need the kind of production they got the other night from big men Eric Paschall (17 points), Omari Spellman (16) and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree (11) who picked up the slack from  stars Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges.

Wright loved it. 

“Jalen and Mikal didn’t have their normal nights but the other guys stepped up,: said Wright, who moved within eight wins of Al Severance’s school record 413. “Our young guys like Omari and Dhamir keep getting better. Providence defends the three better than anybody, so that leaves openings inside. But you’ve got to take advantage of it. Those guys got us going.”

Particularly the 6-foot-9 Jr. Paschall, who transferred from Fordham in 2015, where he led the team in scoring, but admits didn’t play much defense. He knew that would have to change once he arrived on the Main Line, especially being surrounded by explosive players like Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins , Brunson and Bridges.

“I know I wasn’t the greatest defensive player when I came here,” admitted Paschall, who not only led the Cats parade of six double figure scorers, but handed out five assists, blocked three shots and had four steals.  “I worked on it every day during my redshirt year and then got better and better playing last year. Now I definitely feel comfortable defensively.”

And happy to pick his spots and share the wealth at the offensive end. 

“I knew when I came here I’d he playing with other great players,” said Paschall, Nova’s sixth leading scorer at10.0 per game. “When I transferred I knew I was going to a winning program and culture. This program has a great history, so it’s a blessing just to be here.”

But it’s no blessing for teams taking on the Wildcats, who’ve now won 14 games by at least 14 points, 11 by 20 or more. 

“When you play a great team like Villanova  they don’t beat themselves and can beat you in so many ways,“ said exasperated Friars’ coach Ed Cooley. “Every mistake, every breakdown you make they take advantage of. That’s why they’re the No. 1 team in the country and deservedly so.”

Once they recover from the shock of losing Booth,, they’ll study the films of a rare close — for a while — game, before heading to Marquette for a Sunday matinee.  

“You don’t want games like this, but you need them and you learn from them,” explained Wright, whose club hosts Creighton a week from tonight, followed by a Super Bowl Sunday noon date with Seton Hall. “We’ll learn much more from this one than the others.”

One thing they’ll learn is even when they’re not at their best — starting off just 3-for-14 and getting out-rebounded 44-33 — they can still go off at any time and turn nail biters into blowouts. That’s why with the NCAA’s Big Dance only seven weeks away Villanova is again looking very much like the team to beat.

And why Philadelphia just might soon be reigning Cats — and Dogs.  

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