After Tuesday's Big 5 win over La Salle, Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright sat down for the post game press conference. It had been a close game, and there were a lot of questions about how it stirred up memories of past Big 5 games in the historic Palestra. He was asked about the play of Senior standout Josh Hart, and the career 26 point game by Jalen Brunson. But there was one question that must have seemed like deja vu for Jay, probably because he had been asked a similar question exactly one week ago in the same spot. In fact he was asked a similar question two weeks ago at the Charleston Classic. It may have different phrasing, but the same question has come up for the last six games: "What's the status of Phil Booth."
It's a fair question. The starting guard who had a breakout performance in last year's Championship game has been out for almost three weeks with no time table for his return. Every update seems to be that he's "possible" to return next game and "probable" for the game after that. It may be frustrating for the fans not to know when he'll return, but it can't be nearly as frustrating as it is for Phil Booth. And to understand that, you have to go back to last season.
Last season, Phil Booth started to experience pain in his knee. He was the first player off the bench for a team that was contending for a National Championship, and so like any player that wants to play, he decided to play through it. "A lot last year he said 'I'm fine, I'm fine', and he wasn't. We found that out at the end of the year," said head coach Jay Wright. "I did see little things sometimes, and I'd ask him, and he'd say 'no, I'm fine'." Those "little things" would compound over time, and in the off season Booth would end up needing arthroscopic surgery to repair his left knee.
After an off-season of rehab, Booth looked better than he had the entire previous season. He was primed to step into a starting role for the Wildcats, and his work ethic had really impressed Wright and the coaching staff. "He worked his butt off to come back. He was a monster. You ask any of our guys, all fall he was a monster." He got off to a slow start this season statistically, but he was a vocal leader on the court and a lock down defender on the perimeter. He had 7 points on 50% shooting, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists in the teams road win over #15 Purdue, and looked poised to move back towards his 20 point national championship performance.
That's when the pain began to return. Wright did not want a repeat of last season, explaining, "He started getting little twinges in a different area. It wasn't serious, but he was frustrated. So the conversations are 'just be patient, let's get it right. It's not serious. Let's strengthen your leg, let's make sure you got no pain, and let's not do what you did last year.' So we're really being careful with him because he's a tough, tough kid. The conversations are 'Be honest'."
And so, for the last two and a half weeks, Booth has been honest about his injury. But that doesn't mean he's not working hard with the team, or that he's not partially responsible for their undefeated start to the season. He works hard in practice and helps warm the team up prior to games. Even during the games he patrols the end of the bench cheering on his teammates and patiently waiting for his chance to get back on the court. There's no doubt that this team will be better once he's back in the lineup, but there have been a few silver linings while he's been sidelined
With Booth out, his spot in the starting rotation has been filled by Villanova's 6th man, red shirt sophomore Mikal Bridges. Bridges and Booth actually came to Villanova together three years ago, but Bridges sat out his freshman season to put on some weight and grow into his lanky 6'7" frame. And just like Booth, Bridges also burst onto the scene in last year's post season. As a RS freshman, he and Booth were often the first two off the bench to give a boost of energy and valuable defensive minutes to the eventual Champions. Bridges length and athleticism would often cause fits for opposing defenses, and his offense around the rim steadily improved throughout the tournament.
Now in his third season on campus, Bridges has improved his shot and his ability to slash to the hoop. He averages 11.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and leads the team with 1.7 steals. But most impressive is that in a backcourt that includes Player of the Year candidate Josh Hart and last year's hero Kris Jenkins, it's Bridges that leads all guards with a FG% of 63% from the floor. Not only that, he's shooting a whopping 81% from inside the arc and he ranks 11th nationally in KenPom's offensive rating.
Bridges was always going to get "starter minutes" this season, and in the three games before Phil Booth went out he averaged just over 22 minutes per game. But in the six games that he's started in Booth's absence, that number has rocketed up to over 31 minutes per game. While he's staying efficient from a shooting perspective, Wright commented after the La Salle game that there's more to being a starter. "He's got to learn how to do it. He played 33 minutes tonight. He's got to learn how to do it for 33 minutes. And he is, he's learning. He can come off the bench, bring a lot of energy, give us a lot, and then I can get him out. Now, I can't get him out (laughs). So he's learning, he's getting better every night, and I thought he was great tonight."
The other beneficiary from Booth's absence on the court is red shirt freshman Donte DiVincenzo, who sat out last season after breaking his foot early on. While primarily a shooter/athletic wing, DiVincenzo has been able to get more time handling the ball as the backup point guard, and it's done wonders for his confidence and decision making. In his three games playing behind Booth, he averaged 15 minutes, 4.3 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 1 turnover. But when asked to step up with Booth out, he's taken a noticeable step up in production. Through the last six games he's averaged over 24 minutes, 10.5 points, 3.8 rebounds, and a fantastically low .3 turnovers per game.
It's great to see both of these young Wildcats step up and develop with extended minutes, albeit a small sample size. However, more minutes doesn't always mean an increase in production. In fact, it could put the team at risk for other players to join Booth on the sideline with injuries.
There's no such thing as a "good" time to get injured, but if you could pick a six game stretch for Booth to miss, this would have been it. The Wildcats weren't really tested in their first five games without Booth as all of their opponents were outside KenPom's Top 50. Even with just a seven man rotation, Villanova was winning by an average of over 20 points without their starting shooting guard. Then they ran into La Salle.
This wasn't a national power, this was KenPom's 96th ranked team who had already lost to Temple and Texas Southern. But that didn't matter, because this was a Big 5 game and they were getting a shot to take down the newly crowned #1 team in the nation, the reigning national champions, and a rival to boot. And so for the first time since losing Booth, Villanova was in a fight. They were able to pull out the victory, but it was clear that a seven man rotation wouldn't be able to keep that pace up all season.
After the game, Jay Wright admitted that the short bench limits the Cats game plan. "It's Kris Jenkins playing 35 minutes, it's Josh playing 38, it's Jalen playing 34. There's some things at the end of the game, you know they're worn down a little bit. We like to press, we got to press a little bit less. We can't be as aggressive defensively. It gets us into a little bit more half court games with depth. Tonight, we had to go small. Some other nights it doesn't hurt us as much, but when you play a team like this, it wears our guys out and limits us defensively."
Villanova's defense was already poised to take a step back after losing Daniel Ochefu, the anchor of last year's defense. To make up for losing their rim protector the defense ramped up the pressure on the perimeter, including extending their 1-2-2 press. But that strategy relied on having a full 8 man rotation so that everyone could get a blow after running at full speed. Now without Booth, the defense becomes somewhat handcuffed, especially in close games with teams that can push them. That or they run the risk of overworking the rest of the team, increasing the chance of another injury.
Looking ahead at the schedule, more of those games and those teams are on the horizon. This weekend the Cats will face the #23 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and following that they'll face another Big 5 rival that's already taken down two ranked teams in Temple. And by the end of the month, Villanova will have to hit the road to face #10 Creighton. Without knowing when Booth will be able to return, it's hard to see the Wildcats making their way through December undefeated.
So with all of this taken into consideration, it's not just Phil Booth's talent this team is missing, they're also limited on defense. But in my opinion, that's an acceptable sacrifice if it means getting Booth back at full health for the rest of the season. In a sport where you're judged by your post-season performance, February and March are vastly more important than making it through non-conference play undefeated. As long as Jay is able to find a balance that doesn't require him to play his best players 35+ minutes to scrape out a win, it's smarter to stay patient. In the meantime this team and its fans will just have to settle for being the #1 ranked reigning national champions.