Phil Booth

Villanova has 1 big advantage in NCAA Tournament pressure cooker

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Villanova has 1 big advantage in NCAA Tournament pressure cooker

VILLANOVA, Pa. — There were many reasons why Villanova was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And many more for why it's one of just two top seeds still standing.

The Wildcats do a lot of things well. They have depth, they can shoot from three, they defend, they are well-coached and they play hard. But perhaps their greatest attribute isn’t physical or psychological.

It’s experience. 

Of 'Nova’s core six, five were on the national championship team two seasons ago. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth played key roles on that squad. Donte DiVincenzo (injured) and Eric Paschall (transfer) were on the team but did not play. Having players that talented and that seasoned can’t be quantified. Not to mention a coaching staff still in tact from that title team. 

Between that run in 2015-16 and playing one of the toughest schedules in the country in a battle-tested Big East conference, there is nothing this group has not seen.

“Obviously the playing experience is most important but having coaches who have been in it," Villanova head coach Jay Wright said Monday. "Having guys like Donte, Eric, who were sitting out, be a part of that '16 run — that’s important, too. They learned a lot, they picked up a lot. To be able to share that experience with the young guys, I think that helps this team a lot.”

DiVincenzo agreed with his coach's sentiment.

“We’ve seen the biggest stage," the redshirt sophomore guard said. "Although myself and Eric were not playing, we were there and witnessed it and we know what it takes not only to win it but to get there.”

Next up for Villanova is the Sweet 16 and fifth-seeded West Virginia on Friday night in Boston. The Mountaineers begin guarding you in the parking lot. It is a 90-foot torture test of relentless pressure, end to end. A brutal matchup for any team.

But rest assured, Villanova will be prepared and won’t be overwhelmed. 

“No matter what the stage is, we don’t care," Bridges said. "You can put us anywhere, we’re going to play the same game. We tell the young guys, 'Don’t think of it as the Sweet 16, think of it as the next game.'"

It may be more than just the next game.

But the moment won’t be too big for this bunch that’s seen it all.

Villanova cruises in Phil Booth's return

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Villanova cruises in Phil Booth's return

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Phil Booth returned to Villanova's lineup, and it looked as if he never left.

Booth had 14 points in his comeback from a broken right hand that sidelined him for seven games, and Mikal Bridges scored 27 points to lead No. 3 Villanova to a 93-62 victory over DePaul on Wednesday night.

Eric Paschall had 16 points, and Jalen Brunson added 11 points and seven assists to help the Wildcats (25-3, 12-3 Big East) beat DePaul for the 16th straight time.

Booth played 16 minutes, going 4 for 6 from the field and 2 for 4 from. He was injured Jan. 23 against Providence, had his cast removed Friday and practiced Tuesday.

Wildcats coach Jay Wright was pleasantly surprised at Booth's speedy recovery -- and his play.

"It's great to have him back," Wright said about Booth, who entered averaging 11.6 points. "It's a tribute to him. It looked like he never had anything wrong at practice. He looked good tonight, completely fine. It just amazes me."

Booth entered 2:53 into the contest and made his presence felt, scoring eight points in eight minutes to help the Wildcats to their 16-point halftime lead.

"It felt good to be back out there," Booth said. "A little rust but I wasn't worried about offense. My hand felt great."

Max Strus scored 21 points for the Blue Demons (10-17, 3-12).

The Wildcats had a comfortable 46-30 lead at the break. They surged to a 27-point advantage with 17:47 left in the contest by scoring 13 of the first 15 second-half points over 2:13. Bridges capped the run with a 3-pointer that made it 59-32 and practically erased any chances of a DePaul comeback.

"Our hands were down, we were late to a couple of rotations," Blue Demons coach Dave Leitao said of the Villanova spurt.

Leitao said the Wildcats have so many offensive options, and adding Booth makes it even harder to defend them.

"They are back to being whole," he said.

The game was tied at 16 after a Strus 3-pointer with 11:09 left in the half, but the Wildcats slowly and methodically pulled away.

Bridges had 15 points and Paschall added nine in the opening 20 minutes. Villanova was 10 for 14 from the free-throw line while the Blue Demons didn't attempt a foul shot. For the game, the Wildcats finished 15 for 21 from the line while DePaul was 0 for 1.

Big picture
DePaul: The Blue Demons need a victory in one of their three remaining games to reach four conference wins, which would be their most since joining the Big East.

Villanova: The four-time defending Big East champion Wildcats also have three regular-season games remaining. They are tied for first place with Xavier but own the tiebreaker with the Musketeers after beating them twice, including Saturday's 95-79 win at No. 4 Xavier.

Wright stuff
Wright recorded his 411th win at Villanova to close within two victories of tying Alexander Severance for first place in all-time coaching victories. In his 17th season at Villanova, Wright improved to 17-2 against DePaul.

Series dominance
The Wildcats have won 26 of the 34 matchups, with DePaul's last win coming Jan. 3, 2008. Villanova won at DePaul 103-85 on Dec. 27 in the other contest of this season's two-game series.

Strus for 3
Strus made three 3-pointers, finishing 3 for 9, to up his single-season total to 74 and pass Quentin Richardson for second-most in a season. Drake Diener, with 85 in the 2004-05 season, tops the list.

Up next
DePaul: Host Marquette on Saturday.

Villanova: At Creighton on Saturday.

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.”