Villanova’s 87-61 loss to Purdue on Saturday night in the second round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament signaled the end of Phil Booth’s collegiate career. But it was the Baltimore resident and Mount Saint Joseph graduate who was consoling sophomore forward Jermaine Samuels at the end of the game instead of being on the receiving end of the comforting.
That act was perhaps the least surprising display from the fifth-year senior guard, according to fellow fifth-year senior Eric Paschall.
“He never makes anything about himself,” said Paschall, a Wildcats forward. “He’s a very selfless player. He just cares about everybody else, and that’s something that’s very good to have in that leadership position. He’s one of the greatest Villanova basketball players of all time, and that’s one of the reasons why.”
For the 23-year-old Booth, reassuring Samuels was simply something he was accustomed to doing as a team co-captain for the second year in a row.
“I was fine,” he said. “It mostly hit me later, after that game. It happened so fast, and you’re in the moment, and then after the game, yeah, it’s more emotional and harder to deal with. But during it, it seemed like he needed me at the time.”
Booth became the ninth player in school history to amass 1,500 points and 300 assists in his career. He also played in 148 games, the most by any Villanova player, and tied an NCAA record by being a part of the program’s 13th straight tournament win in a first-round triumph over St. Mary’s on Thursday.
More than just the individual numbers, however, Booth played a critical role in catapulting Villanova to national prominence. The school captured NCAA championships in 2016 and 2018, four Big East tournament crowns and four Big East regular-season titles in the five years Booth spent with the Wildcats. He was injured and did not play for most of the 2016-17 season, when the team won the Big East tournament and regular-season title.
Villanova coach Jay Wright said Booth’s contributions might be unrivaled by any other player in school history.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the five years that he’s been here, we’ve been one of the winningest programs in college basketball,” Wright said. “When he was a freshman, he unselfishly played a role where he was one of our best players in our tournament game against N.C. State that we lost, and he was on the Big East champion team that year. Then in his sophomore year, he scored 20 points in the national championship game, and that was incredible.
“The year that he was hurt in 2017, we went into that tournament as the No. 1 seed, but we really only had a bench of 6½ guys that year. If we would have had him on that team, I think we could have made a run to another championship. Then we had him back the next year and ended up winning it. And this year, the way that he carried a bunch of young guys, a bunch of inexperienced guys was amazing. I think he’s been as impactful as anybody we’ve had over the last five years.”
Booth was a two-time All-Metro first-team selection by The Baltimore Sun, including the paper’s All-Metro Player of the Year as a senior in 2013-14, when he averaged 19 points, six rebounds and three assists while leading the Gaels to the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference and Baltimore Catholic League championships.
But he said winning the Big East titles and two NCAA championships were not on his radar coming out of high school.
“You don’t even think about that type of stuff,” he said. “That’s what’s so amazing about it. You never talked about it, so that when it did happen, it’s just truly a blessing and a very fortunate position to be in.”
The national championships are the high points of his collegiate career, but Booth emphasized he most enjoyed the bonds he forged with his teammates every season.
“The teams weren’t perfect during those seasons,” he said. “You’re not going 30-something-and-0. You’re going through losing streaks and you go through chemistry issues with the team just playing together, and then you come together at a certain point, and something clicks, and you’re playing at a whole different level. That’s more special, to see the progress you made and how far you can go in the journey.”
The low point was a 2016-17 season in which Booth played the first three games before succumbing to pain and swelling in his surgically repaired left knee. He did not return until the following season, but said the time on the bench aided his development as a player.
“I learned so much sitting out,” he said. “Of course, you want to play, but just learning and watching guys play, I had a new respect for the game. It really helped me out for the last two years. I really appreciated the game even more than before because you weren’t able to play. So every chance I got to go out onto the court and play, I enjoyed it.”
Interchangeable at point and shooting guard, Booth set career highs this past season in points and assists per game, and total field goals and 3-point field goals made. Wright said Booth embraced the challenge of leading a team that had lost four players from last year’s NCAA title squad to the NBA.
“He was always capable of taking over a game, but would always play a supporting role to anybody else that was getting hot,” Wright said. “But if he sensed that we needed him, he was always there. So I kind of feel like he was ready for this maybe two years ago, but he stuck to his role. … This was his year. He was just ready, and he stepped up and took over and was very comfortable.”
Booth has been projected as a mid- to late second-round pick in the NBA draft in several mock drafts, and said he is keeping every option open, including working his way through the G League or playing professionally overseas. Whatever happens, Paschall said his teammate’s legacy has already been cemented.
“I feel like he’s had one of the best Villanova basketball careers in history,” Paschall said. “He’s been here five years, won two national championships, four Big East tournament championships, [four] regular-season championships. Just having that is ridiculous in a college career. So I feel like his legacy is tremendous.”