Phil Booth has seen the ups and downs during his five seasons in the Villanova basketball program. He’s been a part of national championship teams in 2016 and 2018 but sat out the year in between with a nagging knee injury. He’s been admired for his performance on the court by the fans who yell “Booooth!” in Finneran Pavilion.
The lasting legacy for Booth, however, might be the combination of leadership and his competitive nature since arriving on the Main Line from his native Baltimore. That’s especially true this season when he and Eric Paschall teamed up to guide their younger teammates on and off the court.
“The guys always migrate to him,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said of Booth. “There’s very few guys that are really well-respected for their competitiveness and toughness, and well-liked also. Usually you find one or the other. But he’s really rare. The guys love him, they just love him, but on the court he’ll go after anybody.
“It’s always been that way, even when he was younger. He and Daniel Ochefu were great friends when he was a freshman. It was the weirdest thing, but on the court, they’d kill each other. I’ve seen him be someone that the players looked up to and followed even when he didn’t have the title of captain. This year, it’s his team, it’s his and Eric’s team.”
Booth’s leadership skills first came from his father, Phil Booth Sr., who grew up in Philadelphia and starred in basketball at Northeast High and Coppin State, and were enhanced by Pat Clatchey, his high school coach at Mount St. Joseph’s, and Keith Stevens, his AAU coach with Team Takeover.
“Since I was 7 years old, my dad taught me about the game, how to be a great teammate, how to be unselfish, to always make the right play, and how to lead,” the 6-foot-3 Booth said in an interview last week at the Finn.
“Coach Clatchey and Coach Stevens pushed me, demanded more of me as a leader. Since I’ve been here, Coach Wright definitely has. Even before this year, he demanded that of me, and the assistant coaches as well. A lot of coaches have seen that ability in me and tried to pull that out of me.”
This is Booth’s second year as a captain. He teamed last year with Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges because “he’s just naturally always been a leader on this team,” Wright said. This year, the demands have been greater.
“He’s had the ability to play the point guard spot this year, lead the team emotionally and psychologically and still distribute the ball to everybody, but still be the leading scorer,” the Villanova coach said. “It’s like he’s doing everything.
“The [Feb. 27] Marquette game, he plays his butt off defensively, leads the team, not making shots but gets 10 free throws down the stretch and gets seven assists. He’s our leading scorer and he leads us in assists. He’s doing everything. You really talk about a guy shouldering responsibility.
“And then off the court, he’s the guy the staff talks to get all the guys together, keep an eye on the guys. He’s the consummate Villanova basketball player, he really is.”
Booth has accepted the responsibility of helping to guide a team that includes seven freshmen and sophomores.
“This is a different team, a young team,” he said. “A lot of things that we didn’t have to talk about the last couple of years, we have to do with this team because they just didn’t know because they’re inexperienced. So there’s constant communication to make sure they know what Villanova basketball is, make sure they know all the little details on how important everything is that we do.
“It’s about me playing the right way. Doing the things that we’re supposed to do just kind of shows what young guys what they’re supposed to do. So it kind of shows them by my actions. If I’m doing the right thing, then they’ll do the right thing.”
He’s done plenty of right things on the court. He leads the Wildcats in scoring (18.6 points per game) and assists (3.9) while knocking down a team-high 83 three-pointers. He has 12 games of 20 points or more this season, including a career-high 29 at Kansas.
The journey is almost over for Booth. He now faces a postseason, beginning Thursday in the Big East Tournament, that could last as few as two games or as many as nine. Of course, the longer runs ended in a national championship, including in 2016 when Booth scored 20 points in the title game against North Carolina.
“I don’t try to look back at it at this point because it’s coming down to the end,” Booth said. “I think it’ll be soon, when I sit back and look at how everything went in different ways -- the ups, the downs, the injuries, the championships, the winning. There’s so many ups and downs. It’s been a crazy ride.