It has been three weeks since junior guard Phil Booth last suited up for the Wildcats. The last time he appeared in a game for Villanova was when the ‘Cats opened the Charleston Classic against Western Michigan. Since then, Booth has been unavailable for six consecutive games, and his status is still unknown moving forward.
He watched last Tuesday’s game against La Salle from the sideline wearing a suit and tie and still nursing a sore knee. In his absence, four of Villanova’s five starters spent at least 33 minutes on the floor.
This was the second time since Booth has been on the shelf that the Wildcats’ have needed more than 30 minutes from four starters. In the entire 2015-16 season – 40 games – ‘Nova had four starters play more than 30 minutes just four times.
Depth and health have been two key elements of Villanova’s success in recent years. Last year, seven players averaged more than 20 minutes per game. In 2014-15, then-sophomore guard Josh Hart was named the Big East Sixth Man of the Year, a testament to the way head coach Jay Wright benefitted from rotating players in and out of the lineup during the course of a game.
In the early stages of 2016-17, Wright is dealing with a limited arsenal for the first time in a long time.The team has had a total of seven players play in all of its games in each of the last two seasons. And six players played in every game in 2013-14 as well. The ‘Cats have been extremely fortunate to not have to play through an extended period of time without one of their primary contributors.
“It’s Kris Jenkins playing 35 minutes; it’s Josh [Hart] playing 38; It’s Jalen [Brunson] playing 34,” Wright said, to describe the void left from Booth’s absence. “There’s some things at the end of the game, you know we’re worn down a little bit. We like to press…we [have to] press a little bit less. We can’t be as aggressive defensively.”
Redshirt sophomore forward Mikal Bridges has filled in nicely as Booth’s replacement in the starting lineup, but that leaves Villanova’s bench more shallow than normal. ‘Nova must rely on redshirt freshman guard Donte DiVincenzo and redshirt sophomore forward Eric Paschall as its top reserves. Paschall missed all of last season due to the NCAA’s transfer rules while DiVincenzo’s redshirt was used after suffering an injury early in the season. Both are very capable players but do not bring the same type of play off the bench as Booth, Bridges, and Hart have in the past.
When coming off the bench, Bridges brings a certain level of intensity off the bench that has defined Villanova’s “sixth man” over the last three seasons. Now that he is in the starting lineup, however, that spark seems absent from the Wildcats reserve players. While DiVincenzo brings energy and athleticism and Paschall can provide scoring and tough rebounding, both are still settling in to their respective roles.
Booth’s presence is important whether he is in the starting five or the lead man off the bench. If he starts the game, that allows Wright to use Bridges as a defensive spark plug and reenergize the Wildcats’ pressure on opposing offenses. And if Wright decides to allow Bridges to continue starting games, Booth is an equally effective defender that also possesses tremendous scoring potential.
This would explain why Booth’s injury is being monitored so closely and handled with caution while the season is young.
“He had minor arthroscopic surgery, and he worked his butt off to come back,” said Wright, after noting that Booth played with the same type of injury during the latter part of last season. “Then he started getting little twinges in a different area, which wasn’t serious, but he was frustrated.”
Although Booth’s current knee ailment may not be fully related to last year’s, it has prompted Villanova’s coaching staff to be vigilant in its handling of the situation. Wright has asked his veteran guard to “just be patient” and “be honest if there’s any pain”.
“Last year he said ‘I’m fine, I’m fine’…he wasn’t,” Wright said. “We found out at the end of the year. So we’re really being careful with him, because he’s a tough, tough kid.”
If there is ever an ideal time for Booth to slowly rehabilitate, it would be during this early stretch of non-conference play. La Salle pushed the ‘Cats, and they will undoubtedly be pushed again. There are tough tests looming, beginning on Saturday with No. 23 Notre Dame and a road game against No. 10 Creighton on New Year’s Eve. Villanova needs Booth to rejoin the lineup soon, or the Wildcats may run into trouble in some of their upcoming high-profile matchups.