Early on this season there was a lot of praise for Villanova. People would point to their great offense, their experienced leadership, and their traditionally strong defense. In fact, every time someone put together a list of the “one flaw of the best teams”, the consensus was that Villanova had none.
However, that analysis would always come with one caveat: the Wildcats needed to stay healthy. Three hand injuries later and Villanova will likely have to finish most, if not all, of the regular season with a seven man rotation. Worst of all, that rotation won’t include their team captain and player with the most Villanova games under his belt, Phil Booth.
Booth suffered a fracture in his right hand after an awkward swat for the ball on defense late in the win against Providence earlier this week. It’s a tough break (no pun intended) for the RS Junior who missed almost all of last season with a knee injury. But knowing that he’s going to be on the shelf for at least a month, what does that mean for Villanova as they look to win a 5th consecutive Big East title? Let’s look at a few key factors for the Wildcats in the next few weeks, and beyond.
What The Wildcats Lose Without Booth
I love Phil Booth, probably more than the next guy. His style of play, his gritty defense, and as Chris Lane likes to point out, his endless supply of “Booth Faces”. Let’s not kid ourselves, you can’t simply replace him. Sure, DiVincenzo will take his spot in the starting rotation, but his 28.2 minutes per game will likely get split between the active guards. Colin Gillespie is going to see the biggest bump in playing time, but he’s coming back after his own hand injury.
Booth is quietly having an amazing season. He ranks in the Top 100 in effective FG% nationally, and ranks Top 50 in the country for Offensive Rating. On defense, he’s the team’s second best perimeter defender after Mikal Bridges, and also ranks 3rd on the team in steals.
As we saw last season with a short bench, I’d expect to see a dip in pace of play for the Wildcats. Jay has already said this season that when he has a short bench, he can’t press as much as he’d like to. Villanova is going to try to slow the game down to conserve energy and play fewer defensive possessions. This is where they rely heavily on their efficiency to win games, and unfortunately Booth was a big part of that.
But while all the minutes and stats are important, here’s one thing they don’t lose: Phil Booth. He’ll still be at every practice, he’ll still be at every game, and he’s still a captain and leader on this team. Last year he learned how to best help his teammates from the sidelines, and he’s going to be able to put that to good use over the coming weeks as he recovers.
The Seven Man Rotation
The good news here is that overall, this probably has a minimal effect on Villanova’s starting lineup. Everyone said we have six starters, now we’re just going to have to play with five like the rest of the country. As much as I love Phil Booth, and losing him is going hinder this team, their still good enough to win without him. It won’t come in nearly as dominant a fashion as we’ve been seeing, but this is still a ridiculously good core of players.
While Booth was an important piece of the system and a team captain, this is still Jalen Brunson’s team. He’s the leader, the star, and the guy that can make the adjustments needed without his backcourt running mate. Mikal Bridges is still the team’s defensive leader. While Phil’s a big loss on defense, Bridges is the kind of player that can make up for it. Donte DiVincenzo is good enough to start anywhere in the country, and while Booth rehabs, he’s going to step right into the starting lineup without missing a beat. Eric Paschall has been really turning it on lately, and his emerging star will also help Villanova win in tough match ups. And Omari Spellman just needs to keep doing his thing. Outside of three-pointers, there isn’t much in terms of crossover between what he and Booth do on the court.
Bottom line, the starting five is still going to be #1 in the country level good. It’s the bench where everyone’s focus will be.
A lot of people pointed to a short rotation as one of the main factors in Villanova’s early exit from the NCAA tournament. But even if we discount “tired legs” because this won’t have been a season long issue for the Wildcats, the bigger issue is the unknown level of contribution from the bench. Last season, it was RS Freshman Donte DiVincenzo and RS Sophomore Eric Paschall, both of whom were already playing at a very high level by the end of January.
Instead, we’re looking at a bench of all true freshman. Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree has gotten the most run and shown the most improvement as the only one not to be hampered by injuries (knock on wood). This may not be the most accurate comparison, but at this point I look at him like an inverse Darryl Reynolds. Above average on offense (6.6 PPG in his last 6 games, and went on a shooting streak of 18 for 18 earlier this season), but still needs some work on defense. The good news is that like Reynolds, he’s a strong rebounder on both ends of the floor, averaging 3 offensive rebounds and 5 total boards in his last two games. Unfortunately, while he’ll likely see an uptick in minutes with the shorter rotation, it won’t be replacing Booth.
That monumental task is going to land squarely on the shoulders of freshman guard Colin Gillespie. As the only ball handler coming off the bench, Gillespie is going to be asked to run the offense at some point. Last season, Donte DiVincenzo used the same opportunity to make a massive jump in his game. Based on what we heard in the preseason and what we’ve seen so far, I think Gillespie is capable of making similar progress.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re going to see some freshman mistakes out there. DiVincenzo had an entire red shirt year to get used to the college game. Gillespie has had less than three months, and almost half of it has been sidelined with injury. But if the Wildcats are going to be playing their best basketball in March, they can’t run Jalen and Donte into the ground in February. Just remember this every time Colin’s on the floor: sometimes the best way to learn is by making mistakes.
Beyond DCR and Gillespie, there are three other names you’re going to hear for three completely different reasons. Let’s call them the Question Mark, The Sponge, and The Red Shirt.
The Question Mark is Jermaine Samuels. Samuels is likely still out from one of those trendy broken hands that he suffered in practice four weeks ago. Based on his original recovery timeline, that puts him back with the team somewhere between Feb. 8th and 22nd. We haven’t had any updated timelines yet, so we don’t really know when he’s going to be back. But we also don’t really know what he’s going to be when he comes back.
Earlier this season, Samuels struggled the most out of any of the presumed nine man rotation. In the little playing time he was getting, he looked lost and unsure of what to do on offense while playing overly aggressive defense. You could see the talent and the potential there, he just hadn’t caught up to the college game yet. Finally, it all seemed to click against DePaul. In 16 minutes he scored 11 points and grabbed 3 rebounds while shooting a perfect 3 for 3 from the field and 4 for 4 from the line.
But the next day, he broke his hand in practice. And with that, we were all left wondering: Was this just a fluke against a traditionally bad team, or had the highest rated player in this Villanova recruiting class finally turned the corner? We’ve still got at least two weeks to find out the answer, but there are some reasons to be optimistic. The injury was to his non-shooting hand, so he’s still been able to practice with the team, learn concepts, and adjust to the pace of the game. He’ll likely be back before Booth, and we’re all going to be anxious to see the progress he’s made.
The Sponge is Tim Delaney. Delaney is no stranger to injuries, as he’s already missed basically two seasons with hip surgeries. Now that those issues are presumably behind him, he’s been mainly used in relief at the end of halves to “soak up” minutes and keep the rest of the rotation fresh. Delaney is fundamentally sound, but he’s not at the same level athletically as most of his teammates. His limitations are mainly on the defensive end, where he frequently has to play the anchor of a zone defense because he can’t close out on the perimeter if Villanova plays man. On offense, he’s usually relegated to the baseline, despite being a decent shooter.
Don’t get me wrong, if 2017 proved anything it’s that this is an important role with a short bench. Whether it be reducing minutes for the starters or relieving foul trouble, you need to have guys you can count on beyond the normal rotation when trying to survive injuries. Delaney is that guy, and we’re lucky to have someone so dedicated to putting the team first in that role.
The Red Shirt is Dylan Painter. If you read the comment section on this site, you know that many people (or at least a loud few) question why Painter is red shirting this season. The 6’10” Sophomore started getting a little bit of playing time towards the end of last season to give some minutes relief to another team with a short bench, but this year hasn’t played in a game yet.
I have two things to say on this. First, Painter was supposed to red shirt last season, but when Spellman was forced to red shirt, that plan changed. Painter is still working on his game, and like Delaney, almost forces Villanova to play zone defense when he’s on the floor. I think he’s going to be a solid role player in future seasons, but giving him time to improve makes sense to me.
Secondly, I don’t get the argument to play him this year. It’s not that I don’t understand the logic of using him in a similar role as Delaney to soak up minutes and give us options in March, that makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is why anyone who doesn’t practice with the team, spend time with the players, and have a personal relationship with the team would think they know better than Head Coach Jay Wright. I’m pretty sure he’s weighed all the pros and cons of sitting Painter. I’m 100% sure that if he thought playing him would make the team better this year, he’d play him. But seeing that he’s the winningest coach in college basketball the last several years and has a National Championship, I’m going to trust in his judgement to keep the big man on the bench.
The Next Seven Weeks
Exactly seven weeks from the time of this posting, the first round of the NCAA Tournament will be tipping off. Before Booth’s injury, most would have assumed that Villanova would be the sure fire #1 Seed in the East. KenPom had the Wildcats winning every game for the rest of the regular season by 5 points or more. That’s still very much a possibility for this team, but now I wouldn’t be surprised if they drop a road game or two. Let’s take a look at how the next seven weeks could play out.
Week 1: Where Do They Stand?
The first week will give us a good idea of what this team looks like without Phil Booth. A trip to Marquette to avenge last year’s loss and a home game against a Creighton team that’s also dealing with injury will be good tests of how Villanova will approach the short bench. While either of these opponents could go off and have great performances, I still think the Wildcats will come out of these initial games in control of the Big East.
Week 2: The New York/New Jersey Crowd
Villanova will continue to get time to work on this new rotation with home games against two struggling teams in St. John’s and Seton Hall. The Johnnies gave everyone but Donte DiVincenzo trouble in their first meeting, but Nova should still handle this one easily. In their first match-up with Seton Hall, it’s going to depend a little more on which Hall team shows up. I still like Nova at home.
Week 3: The Revenge Week
The Cats finish off their home stand with a game against Butler, who’s beaten them in their last three games. Booth or no Booth, Villanova will not lose to the Bulldogs again. A much tougher test comes later that week in a trip to the Dunk. Providence is good and they gave Nova a scare in the first half this week. This could be one of those dangerous road games to watch out for.
Week 4: It Could Come Down To This
Villanova at Xavier on Feb. 17th could very well be the game that determines the Big East regular season crown. It also could be the week Phil Booth and Jermaine Samuels return from injury. This will be the toughest game the Wildcats play between now and the Big East Tournament, and it’s going to take a high level performance to walk out of the Cintas Center with a win. Oh and also DePaul at home.
Week 5: The Gauntlet
If Xavier is the toughest game, this week is the toughest stretch. The Cats will travel to Creighton and to Seton Hall in back to back games. This is where I’m most worried about minutes for the starting five. Jay tends to stick with his experienced guys in close games, and if Booth’s not back yet, that could mean a lot of minutes late in the season for the core of this team.
Week 6: The Finale
Villanova will close out the regular season with what I can only assume will be a home romping of Georgetown, then prep for MSG and the Big East Tournament. Expect Jay to give the guys some much needed rest this week.
Week 7: BET and Selection Sunday
The Big East Tournament is always tough to get through, but I’d put Villanova in the driver’s seat. That’s especially true if they have Booth back. If he’s still out, and Villanova loses, then the Wildcats are going to have to hope that the NCAA Selection Committee takes that into consideration when determining Nova’s Tournament Seed.
This team is going to get through the next seven weeks, and they’re not going to skip a beat. They’re too talented and too well coached to be phased by this. I’m not saying there won’t be any effect, but this team has shown an ability to adapt to any situation and still find a way to play at their best.
I wish Phil Booth and Jermaine Samuels speedy recoveries. While this is still a very good team without them, it’s a great team with them. In my opinion, it’s the best Villanova team I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait to see what they do next.