Phil Booth is back, and Villanova is better because of it

Phil Booth of Villanova goes up for a shot against St. Joseph’s on Dec. 2.

No athlete wants to be in the situation that Phil Booth found himself in last season.

The junior guard was at every Villanova game during the 2016-17 season, but he played in just the first three games before inflammation in his left knee sidelined him.

Giving the uncertainty of the injury, the decision was made to redshirt Booth for the rest of the season and have him return in 2017-18 with two years of eligibility remaining.

Players play, except Booth couldn’t.

“It was tough last year,” said the native of Baltimore who was expected to be one of the leaders of a team that was defending the 2016 NCAA championship. “Getting ready for game day, you have to put a suit on instead of your uniform. It was a different feeling.”

Of course, Booth felt sorry for himself to an extent. What player with an ounce of competitiveness wouldn’t, especially when he might have been the one missing ingredient for  a talented team that finished 32-4 but lost by three points in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

What Booth did not do, however, was wallow.

Camera icon Julie Jacobson / AP
Phil Booth defending Gonzaga guard Josh Perkins (13) on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.

His time off the court allowed him to look at the game from a different angle. That process has given him more perspective now that he is back for the 2017-18 campaign.

“I learned a lot from that year sitting out,” said Booth, now a redshirt junior. “To get back out there this year, playing and trying to incorporate what I learned last year, that’s really what I’m trying to do.

“It’s great being back out there playing. Every practice I appreciate, every game, anytime I get to be out there with my guys. That was the one thing I really missed. That’s what you learn to appreciate more.”

Still, there was the lingering question of what kind of player he would be once he returned. Could he again become the one who scored 20 points in the 2016 NCAA championship game win over North Carolina? And if so, how long would it take?

Strictly by the numbers, it has taken nine games. Booth matched his career high with 20 points in the fourth-ranked Wildcats’ impressive win over No. 12 Gonzaga on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. He shot 9 for 14 from the floor.

In his last four games, Booth has had season-high scoring outputs going from 12 to 14 to 17 to 20. He’s averaging a career-high 12.1 points and shooting 48.7 percent.

“Every practice, every game, I’ve been feeling more comfortable,” Booth said. “I can feel myself getting back into the rhythm of playing games again. It’s been getting better each day, and it was what I’ve been looking forward to.”

Booth’s reclaiming his responsibility as one of the team leaders along with Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges has been a huge benefit to a team that is less experienced than last year’s.

Brunson, who has started 83 of 84 games since he arrived on the Main Line in 2015, is Brunson.  But Bridges, despite starting 33 games last season, is new to the role of team leader.

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Phil Booth  got a hug from  Jalen Brunson  after the Wildcats won the 2016 NCAA championship.

With Booth seamlessly returning to that role, it has lessened the burden on the other two.

“[Booth] brings a lot,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “They all like each other, but he’s the most revered guy on the team, the most respected.

“He has a great relationship with everybody on the team. He played hurt his sophomore year. Everybody knows that and respects him for that. He scores 20 in the championship game, and then the way he handled last season.

“He’s just a well-respected guy and it permeates our team – his confidence, having it back.”

Sometimes, the bigger test is not how you handle success but how you come back from dealing with adversity.

Booth is back, and that helps make the Wildcats an extremely difficult team with which to contend.

“A year could change your life,” Booth said. “Whether you’re healthy or not, you have to find a way to always get better. It’s not easy [redshirting], but you can still practice and, actually, there is time to work on things more. It was still an important year in terms of improving.”