Phil Booth

Unlikely name provides energy 'Nova needs in rout

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Unlikely name provides energy 'Nova needs in rout

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Even as Villanova remains atop the national rankings and barrels toward its fifth straight Big East regular-season championship, a dark cloud of sorts has been hovering above the Wildcats for the last week.

Can the No. 1 Wildcats keep winning without Phil Booth, who was sidelined last Wednesday with a fractured bone in his right hand? How nervous should Villanova fans be about Booth’s status heading into March as the star senior guard has been ruled out “indefinitely” but could return toward the end of the regular season or the Big East Tournament?

Enter Collin Gillespie, who’s trying to make ‘Nova Nation breathe a little easier.

On Thursday against Creighton — Villanova’s second game with Booth sidelined — the freshman guard had eight points and five assists in 23 minutes to help the Wildcats cruise to a 98-78 shellacking of the Bluejays at the Wells Fargo Center (see observations).

“He brought the energy,” said junior Mikal Bridges, who led all scorers with 21 points. “I told him during the game, in the first half, we were playing off him. He’s the one who came in here and brought all that energy. He played his tail off today. We’re gonna need him for the rest of the season.”

Gillespie, a high school star at nearby Archbishop Wood, had showed flashes of potential early in his freshman campaign before a hand injury of his own sidelined him in mid-December. After missing eight straight games, he returned a little more than a month later but scored only eight total points over the last four contests before Thursday’s timely performance.

“Against a team like [Creighton], you need more perimeter guys than you need big guys,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “So his play tonight was going to be really important going into the game, and I thought when he came in in the first half, he really sparked us.”

While Gillespie’s final stat line may not jump out at you, Wright mentioned the freshman doing little things like taking a charge, effectively distributing the ball and, yes, bringing a lot of energy.

That’s something Gillespie has prided himself on throughout the season, whether it was earlier in the campaign when he was a deeper reserve or now that he’s the first guy off the bench with former sixth man Donte DiVincenzo having taken Booth’s place in the starting lineup.

“I think it’s the same as when I was the seventh or eighth man; just coming in and bringing energy for the team,” Wright said. “Now that Donte is in the starting lineup, it doesn’t really change. I have to keep bringing energy and doing the little things for the team to be successful.” 

Indeed, Gillespie may very well blossom into a Villanova star down the road. But for now, even with Booth injured, he knows his job is to be a role player and help set up Jalen Brunson, Bridges and DiVincenzo for success.

Against the Bluejays, the trio of starting guards accounted for 57 points and 13 assists with Brunson in particular drawing enormous praise from the opposing side — as he usually does.

“I’m not in the NBA but if I was, I would want that guy on my team,” Creighton head coach Greg McDermott said. “He impacts the game in so many ways. If you need him to score, he’ll score. If you need him to distribute, he distributes. He’s got toughness. He’s got moxie. His leadership skills appear to be off the charts. That offense, with the ball in his hands, is really hard to guard.”

Albeit in more modest terms, McDermott also praised Gillespie and fellow freshman reserve Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, a 6-foot-9 forward from Philly.

“Both of those guys come in and just do your job,” the Creighton coach said. “On Jay’s teams, that is, in my opinion, their trademark. They have a lot of guys who have a role and they really execute that role at a high level.” 

Like Gillespie, Cosby-Roundtree has also seen his role elevated because of Booth’s injury, becoming the seventh man in what’s been a tight seven-man rotation. And he too responded in a big way, registering six points and six rebounds, three of which were on the offensive end of the floor.

“The next guy who sparked us was Dhamir,” Wright said. “He had a big offensive rebound early when it was tight, got us an extra possession. Defensively, his ability to guard on the perimeter is becoming an asset for us. He’s really come on and gets better every game. I’m really proud of him.”

Time will tell, of course, when Booth is able to return as ’Nova prepares to make a run at the Final Four and a national championship. But even when he does, the two freshmen — along with redshirt freshman Omari Spellman, who finished with 14 points against Creighton — will almost certainly continue to be important factors.

And for Gillespie, he couldn’t ask for anything more in his first season of college basketball.

“It’s really special,” the Warminster native said. “Being so close to home, my family gets to see me. Just playing for this program is special. It’s been a lot of fun. And it’s just trying to build every day, get better every day.”

Even without Phil Booth, Villanova in good hands

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Even without Phil Booth, Villanova in good hands

NBC Sports Philadelphia anchor/reporter Amy Fadool and senior producer Sean Kane get you set for all the weekend’s local college basketball games with Fastbreak Friday. Look for this column every Friday during the college basketball season.

Marquette (13-7, 4-4 Big East) at No. 1 Villanova (19-1, 6-1 Big East), Sunday 1:00 p.m.
SK:
Villanova visits Marquette Sunday afternoon, returning to the scene of one of their four losses last season. The top-ranked Wildcats will do so shorthanded after learning earlier this week that they will be without one of their best players for the foreseeable future. Junior guard Phil Booth is out indefinitely after fracturing a bone in his right hand during Villanova's win over Providence on Tuesday. 

Remarkably, Booth is the third member of Jay Wright's rotation to miss significant time this season due to a hand injury. Freshman guard Collin Gillespie broke his hand in early December and just returned last week, while fellow freshman guard Jermaine Samuels remains sidelined with a fractured hand. Make no mistake — Booth's injury hurts Villanova the most. He's a terrific two-way player, averaging 11.6 points per game and shooting 43 percent from three-point range while also serving as one of the team's top perimeter defenders. Equally as important, he's a team captain and terrific leader on and off the court.

If Booth follows Gillespie's injury timeline he should return in about six weeks, which would be the start of the Big East Tournament in early March. Expect sophomore Donte DiVincenzo to replace Booth in the starting lineup. DiVincenzo is an outstanding player and previously served as a reserve in name only. As I've written in this column before, he's capable of starting for 98 percent of the teams in the country. The drop-off from Booth to DiVincenzo in the starting lineup shouldn't be too severe. But with DiVincenzo now a starter, the Wildcats bench becomes especially thin with just Gillespie and freshman forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree seeing meaningful minutes. 

Gillespie is the player most impacted by Booth's injury. He'll now be asked to play significantly more minutes at a critical point in Villanova's schedule. Not an easy task considering he's just returning from a lengthy absence due to his own injury.

Life without Booth begins with Sunday's visit to Marquette, a team desperate for a signature win after losing three of their last five games. The Golden Eagles are coming off an 89-70 loss at Xavier on Wednesday. Sophomore guard Markus Howard scored 33 points in the loss to increase his season average to 22.1 points per game. The Wildcats' top priority will be figuring out a way to slow down Howard, something they failed to do earlier this season when he torched them for 37 points.    

Booth's absence will be especially noticeable against Howard and Marquette's talented stable of guards. Considering that Booth is out and the Bradley Center always provides a raucous homecourt advantage, I'm tempted to pick Marquette to upset Villanova on Sunday. But I can't go against Jalen Brunson in this spot. Brunson has done it all for Villanova this season and will now be asked to do even more. Look for a big performance from him this weekend.

Villanova 84, Marquette 77

St. Joseph's (9-10, 4-4 A-10) at Pennsylvania (12-6, 3-0 Ivy), Saturday 7:00 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia 
AF:
Both teams are coming off disappointing losses, though for different reasons. The Hawks had St. Bonaventure right where they wanted. Despite a 16-4 run in the second half, it was a late drought and untimely mistakes that doomed St. Joseph’s from taking both meetings with the Bonnies this year. Meanwhile, Penn just didn’t have it against Temple last weekend, and the Quakers were never really able to threaten the Owls. 

Side note, the rollout from the Penn student section in that game: “Greatness doesn’t quit but one and done-phy should” was in poor form. I get that he doesn’t have a great NCAA tournament record, but the man brought plenty of success to Penn’s program and was just inducted into the school’s hall of fame. That would be like Kentucky fans maligning Rick Pitino, who singlehandedly saved the Wildcats program from certain death... okay, okay. I get it. But still, it’s a bad look for a man who has done so much for your school. 

Back to the game: It’s the final Big 5 game in more than a month for the Quakers, with only La Salle and St. Joseph’s left on the city schedule in March. Ryan Betley continues to be the workhouse for Steve Donahue. The sophomore has posted double-digit scoring in 12 of the last 13 for Penn and only four of those were in losses. When he gets going, it’s tough for opponents to stop him and the Quakers. 

The Hawks, meanwhile, had things going in the right direction with two straight wins before their stumble against the Bonnies. They still have the talent to win plenty of games in the Atlantic 10. They still have their signature defense and low turnover margin that keeps them in games when scoring is at a premium. It’s just a matter of putting it all together for Phil Martelli’s team. And they could really use Charlie Brown, who is still sidelined with a wrist injury. 

I thought the Quakers would beat Temple last week. So I’m hesitant to pick them again. And I think that Martelli has figured something out with his team that will get them back on track.  

St. Joseph’s 70, Penn 68  

Connecticut (11-9, 4-3 AAC) at Temple (10-10, 2-6 AAC), Sunday 8:00 pm
SK:
Temple limps into Sunday night's matchup with UConn following Wednesday's 75-42 loss at No. 9 Cincinnati. The Owls are 3-7 in their last 10 games and in danger of falling out of contention in the AAC before the calendar even gets to February. Meanwhile, UConn is coming off its best win of the season, an 11-point victory over SMU on Wednesday. It was an impressive bounce-back performance following last weekend's 20-point home loss to Villanova. 

While UConn enters this weekend's game with significantly more momentum than Temple, I view these two programs in a similar light. They were both premiere programs in the not too distant past — UConn winning four national championships from 1999-2014, while Temple went to five Elite Eights under John Chaney and was a regular in the NCAA Tournament in the early years of the Fran Dunphy era. But each program has lost a sizable amount of luster the last few years playing in the AAC. Both schools joined the conference for football reasons and their basketball programs have suffered. I'm not saying a poor conference fit is the only reason Temple and UConn are struggling, but it certainly doesn't help matters.

The question for both Temple and UConn now: Can they get back on track? In each case it will take some time. As far as the immediate future, Temple needs a win Sunday if the Owls have any hopes of turning their season around and making a push towards the postseason in February. Something tells me they'll find a way to beat UConn. I watched the Huskies for 40 minutes last weekend against Villanova and came away unimpressed. Granted, Temple isn't Villanova. But the Owls are playing at home and shouldn't be lacking for motivation after getting blown out by Cincinnati.

Temple 68, UConn 64

Northeastern (14-7, 7-2 CAA) at Drexel (8-14, 2-7 CAA), Saturday, 2:00 pm
AF:
The Dragons are coming off one of their most impressive performances of the season, maybe second only to the win over Charleston. They overcame a poor shooting night from Kurk Lee and beat an Elon team that shot nearly 50 percent from the field. How, you ask? Forty points from Tremaine Isabell. Forty. The Missouri transfer went 14 for 23 and made seven 3-pointers in just 32 minutes of work. That’ll do it alright. Isabell has been so impressive this season, but the Dragons need more balance in scoring, kind of like the team they’ll face Saturday.

Speaking of, that is a matchup with the top team in the CAA in Northeastern. The Huskies have won four in a row and are averaging 82 points in that span. Not only that, they are coming off a win in which three players posted a double-double. In their win over Hofstra, Northeastern saw five different players finish with double-digit scoring. They are a complete team and that’s why they only have two conference losses. 

However, and here’s your silver lining Drexel fans, one of those two losses came at the hands of Charleston. And guess who the Huskies face right after Drexel? Yup. So there is a chance Northeastern overlooks Drexel a bit ahead of the rematch with Charleston. But I think this Huskies team has their foot on the gas pedal and is rolling through the CAA. 

Northeastern 79, Drexel 70

Prediction Records
Sean Kane:
18-8
Amy Fadool: 13-14

Another key Villanova player suffers broken hand

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Another key Villanova player suffers broken hand

Make it three broken hands for Villanova in seven weeks.

Sharpshooting Guard Phil Booth is now out indefinitely with a fractured right (shooting) hand. He suffered the injury in Villanova's 89-69 romp over Providence Wednesday night.

A redshirt junior, Booth has been crucial for 'Nova this season. He's averaged 11.6 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.2 steals. He's shot 49 percent from the field and 43 percent from three. He also ranks second in the Big East (to teammate Jalen Brunson) with 2.5 assists for every turnover.

"All of us are disappointed for Phil," head coach Jay Wright said in a statement. "He is one of our captains and the respect for him among his teammates is off the charts. Phil is as mentally tough a player as we have had in our program. We know he'll come back better and stronger from this."

Villanova is also without forward Jermaine Samuels, who broke his hand at the end of December.

Guard Collin Gillespie, who suffered his hand fracture in early December, returned last week against Georgetown and has played in the Wildcats' last three games.

Despite the injuries, Villanova is 19-1 overall and 6-1 in the Big East. The 'Cats received 63 of 65 first-place votes in the AP poll this week.

Villanova's next game is Sunday, Jan. 28, at Marquette at 1 p.m.