Villanova improvement lasts all the way to Final Four

Villanova coach Jay Wright said guard Phil Booth’s return from injury during the regular season is one of the big factors in the Wildcats’ run.

“We’ve got everybody back together but we’re kind of running out of time. So how quick can we really pull this thing together to be a high level team?” – Jay Wright, Feb. 27, 2018

SAN ANTONIO, Texas – The Villanova coach looked worried. A loss at Creighton three days earlier had given the Wildcats a 3-3 record in their last six games. Only two games remained in the regular season before the start of competition in the Big East and the NCAA tournaments.

Injuries to freshmen Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels, and to redshirt junior Phil Booth, had prevented the Cats from fielding a full roster at practice from Dec. 8 to Feb. 16. Booth was the last player to return, but was Wright going to have enough time to get his team playing at its best in all areas?

Well, in a word, yes.

The Wildcats (34-4) have won nine straight games since the loss to Creighton. That included a three-game sweep of the Big East tournament and 4-for-4 with an East Regional championship thus far in the NCAAs going into their Final Four matchup Saturday night against another No. 1 seed, Kansas, at the Alamodome.

Wright said the importance of the February return of Booth, one of the team’s veterans, from a broken bone in his shooting hand could not be overestimated.

“There’s a uniting characteristic about him,” he said. “He lights up a room, and all our guys know it and we all know it. When we got him back, we started to come together more, especially defensively. And it’s just getting better and better every day. That’s kind of the beauty of this, that we keep getting time.”

The Wildcats have been making time, particularly in the NCAA tournament where they’ve defeated Radford, Alabama, West Virginia and Texas Tech by an average margin of 18.2 points, by far the largest of any Final Four team.

Defense and rebounding, always the two areas that Wright stresses the most, came to the front in Sunday’s 71-59 win over Texas Tech. Despite shooting a season-low 33.3 percent of the floor and hitting just four three-pointers, the Wildcats limited the Red Raiders to 33.3 percent shooting and outrebounded them, 51-33.

Camera icon YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Villanova forward/guard Mikal Bridges uses a video camera to record a piece for the NCAA with teammates forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, forward Jermaine Samuels and guard Collin Gillespie during a media availability after the team practiced on Thursday, March 29, 2018 at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

Jalen Brunson, named Thursday as Associated Press player of the year, said he always felt the Wildcats would not run out of time in making progress toward playing their best.

“I just knew that because I have so much confidence in our guys and myself,” he said. “Coach is challenging us and it’s up to us to accept the challenge and try to be the best team we can be. That’s being open-minded every day and that’s just being ready to work hard every day. So I have confidence in my guys and I’m thankful that I’m able to play one more game with them, at least.”

Wright singled out Brunson, Booth and Mikal Bridges as the leaders who helped keep things together when the injuries struck, even the seven contests when Booth was sidelined.

“We got to work with the other guys defensively,” he said. “When Phil came back, he had it. So he was an infusion that kind of finished it off for us because he was the intelligent one out there defensively that kept everybody together.”

The Wildcats are coming off one of their best games of the season in terms of defense and rebounding against Texas Tech, but know they have to increase their intensity against the Jayhawks.

“I think it’s a B-plus for this team,” Wright said. “I think we can get a little bit better, I really do. We’ve got to keep doing it because this team’s better than those two, so we’ve got to be a little bit better.”