Before the Villanova men’s basketball team’s secret scrimmage Saturday, coach Jay Wright went back and looked at last year’s tape.
The matchup was against Pittsburgh, just like Saturday’s. Phil Booth was healthy then, just as he is now. He looked ready to contribute in ways he hadn’t before, just as he has this preseason.
The main difference between 2016 and 2017, Wright hopes, is what comes after. Last year, Booth, the unlikely off-the-bench hero of the Wildcats’ NCAA final against North Carolina, was held out after just three games because of left knee pain and swelling. Villanova went on to win the Big East Conference regular-season and tournament titles and earn a No. 1 seed with the former Mount Saint Joseph star on the bench.
“He was ready to be really good, and I'm surprised we did as well as we did without him,” Wright said Monday at the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation’s “College Season Tip-Off” event.
Booth had undergone arthroscopic surgery on his left knee a month after the 20-point outburst against the Tar Heels, the glorious end to a season of nagging pains, and emerged from his rehabilitation as a starter. But he felt pain in the same knee after the team’s first game last November, and it didn’t relent.
"You work so hard to get back, you're feeling good, and then something happens,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer as he sat out last season. “It's just one of those things that you have to mentally fight through."
Over the summer, Booth was cleared to resume basketball activities, and on Monday, Wright said he was healthy. A 6-foot-3, 190-pound combo guard, Booth has two more years of eligibility remaining after last season’s sidelining injury. With Big East Preseason Player of the Year Jalen Brunson, preseason second-team All-Big East wing Mikal Bridges and rising-star guard Donte DiVincenzo returning, Booth won’t be a focal point of the backcourt, at least not early on. But Wright still expects a “big impact.”
“Not just because of his talent,” Wright said. “He is one of the most respected guys on our team and one of the most well-liked guys on our team. He's a great leader. The guys just naturally follow him. So I expect him to be a big part of everything we do — on the court and off the court — this year.”