SAN ANTONIO, Texas — The journey between Final Four appearances was an interesting ride for each of the three Villanova juniors who played in both the 2016 national-championship game and the one that took place Monday night in the Alamodome.
For Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, it was a journey from freshman uncertainty to leadership roles on another title team and individual success that assured both will be playing at the next level very soon.
For Phil Booth, the experience has been different, even though he was also part of both teams, once as the star substitute who came off the bench to lead the team in scoring, and once as the veteran starter who settled into a quieter role after a series of injuries.
“It’s been a different journey,” Booth said, “but I’m so blessed to still be in a position to play with these guys.”
The versatile 6-foot-3 guard earned quick minutes as a freshman in the 2014-15 season with his combination of rangy defense and reliable outside shooting. Booth made 48.5 percent of his three-point attempts as a freshman and was expected to be the third guard behind Ryan Arcidiacono and Josh Hart the following season, slotted ahead of incoming freshman Brunson.
That was before a series of injuries hampered him throughout that season, particularly a meniscus condition in his left knee that eventually required surgery. He fought through it and played the full season, and, fortunately for Villanova, Brunson was more than ready to fill whatever gaps Booth left behind.
It wasn’t until the championship game against North Carolina that Booth came fully out of the shadows. When the offense needed a boost, Booth led the team with 20 points, hitting 6 of 7 shots from the field, including both of his three-point attempts. When Booth climbed to the top step of the ladder and snipped his piece of the championship net, he was truly on top, both of that night and of the future ahead.
But recovery from offseason knee surgery dragged on and he still wasn’t right when last season began, experiencing such discomfort that the Wildcats were forced to redshirt him after he played just three games. This season, Booth came back finally healthy, and won a starting battle with Donte DiVincenzo, but the smoother ride ended in late January when he broke his right hand.
“My sophomore year, I was a little banged up the whole year, and then I missed what would have been my junior year, and then I got the broken hand midway through this year and was out four weeks,” Booth said. “There were definitely times when I said, ‘Why me?’ The hand breaking was the worst, because it’s your shooting hand. But they say everything happens for a reason. Fortunately, I was able to come back and play, and it has been amazing.”
True, but it hasn’t been exactly the same for Booth. He was shooting 49 percent from the field when he missed seven games in the heart of the Big East schedule, and made just 35.8 percent of his attempts after his return. After converting 43 percent of his three-point shots before the injury, he made only 28.8 percent after.
“I didn’t fully get the rhythm of it back. From that four weeks out, I couldn’t get it back, so I haven’t shot a lot,” Booth said. “Being in that cast messed me up, but I didn’t care. I was just focused on doing what we needed. We’ve got a lot of guys who can make shots. I was worried about getting stops.”
That is what got him back on the court and kept him there, and gave him a good view of this year’s sixth man coming off the bench to lead the team in scoring. It was almost as if Booth had handed the script to DiVincenzo on Monday night. DiVincenzo was the offensive spark this time, finishing with 31 points, an NCAA Final Four record for a non-starter.
“I appreciate that, but my night wasn’t quite like his,” Booth said. “He hit some shots that were, like, ‘Wow.’ I told him, ‘Man, if you make free throws, you might have 40. He sacrificed himself by coming off the bench for us. He could have been starting on countless teams around the country.”
Booth will be back for his senior season and, hopefully, it will contain less drama, or fewer injuries, in any case.
“Phil is such a positive guy. He could always find the positive, even when he was hurt,” Brunson said. “We know what Phil is capable of. He fought through, and he wouldn’t have played if he was too injured. He’d put the team first.”
In any case, there is probably only one player from this Villanova core with a chance to play in three Final Fours. Most expect both Bridges and Brunson to get guaranteed deals in the NBA, which coach Jay Wright always encourages his players to take. Only Booth, who has been through the ups and the downs of a college career, will be back to try again.
He takes the journey with a smile. Even though it has been up and down, it has ended twice with him at the top of a ladder, holding the snippet of cord above his head and not really focusing on how many points he scored either time.