Other than Jay Wright, no one has had a closer look at Villanova basketball the past year than Phil Booth, the forgotten leading scorer in the Wildcats’ thrilling 2016 NCAA Championship win over North Carolina. But while the view from the best seat in the house was great, the frustration for the kid from Baltimore was the worst.
Which is what has made his return after missing all but three games last year with a knee injury, so rewarding.
“Not playing the whole year you really miss the game,” said the 6-3 Booth, who scored a season’s high 17 points, grabbed eight rebounds and handed out six assists, as the Wildcats’ buried archrival Saint Joseph’s 94-53 Saturday on Hawk Hill behind a school record 19 3-pointers. “Now with each practice, each game, I enjoy it more. I’m learning to appreciate the details of the game. Before I would just go out and play. But I learned so much sitting out both defensively and offensively. I’m trying to incorporate what I learned and bring that on the court. I’m getting there. Physically I feel great. I just need to get my rhythm back. That comes with playing.”
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Playing basketball after a long layoff hasn’t been quite like riding a bike, which has to be a scary proposition for future Nova opponents. As good as the 8-0 Wildcats are now — turning a precarious 29-27 lead late in the first half against the upset-minded Hawks into a 55-29 blowout in a dazzling 6:03 span — they figure to only get better as Booth and some of their younger players get more comfortable.
“He’s not 100 percent,” said Wright, whose No. 4 ranked Wildcats now turn their attention to No. 15 Gonzaga, last year’s NCAA runners-up in the Jimmy V Classic tomorrow at Madison Square Garden. “I’ve talked to him a lot about that. You don’t take the year off and come back that easily, but he will get there. He just has to play.”
Pairing Booth in the backcourt with All-America Jalen Brunson, with dynamic Mikal Bridges and rugged Eric Paschall up front, while athletic Donte DiVincenzo and redshirt sophomore Omari Spellman rotate in and out of the starting lineup, makes Villanova formidable on many levels. Certainly the Hawks, who were right in the game until the ‘Cats started raining down threes—knocking down 10 straight in one stretch--got the message loud and clear.
In the process Nova again turned what has been known as the “Holy War” into a one-sided crusade.
“They're trying to win every play and we played to play,” said Saint Joseph’s longtime coach Phil Martelli, whose team became Nova’s 20th consecutive Big Five victim, the last 18 by double figures. “I'm not knocking us. That's our group. But, if they want to know what the top of the city looks like, that's what it looks like. I don’t think anybody was pressing. I think just flat out they were better.”
Martelli says that’s a credit to Wright, who’s risen among the cream of his profession. In the process of recording his 394th win at ‘Nova Wright moved within 19 of Al Severance’s school record 413, certainly well within reach this season.
“I’ve marveled at them for a long time,” said Martelli, who’s been playing a bit shorthanded himself due to injuries on his 4-4 team. “But we’re now witnessing a blue blood in Jay Wright. That’s the way the blue bloods do it. There’s nothing he’s missed.”
That includes making sure his players take care of the business at hand rather than looking ahead.
“This is one of the few places on the road where you go in and can hear every word they say,” said Booth, as the Cats made it 3-1 at Hagan Arena, winning by 14 and 30 in their previous visits. It’s pretty loud there; a real good crowd. But I guess we just learn from the older guys how important every game is and how much we have to stick together. That's what we tried to do."
Now what about the Zags, which will be followed by city victims… er rivals… LaSalle and Temple?
“That would be a good win,” said Booth, averaging 11.1 and 26.8 minutes a game. “They’re really a good team, with a lot of guys back from last year. We’re looking forward to it.”
Especially now, since after becoming a true student of the game watching from the best seat in the house, Phil Booth is finally a big part of it again.