I HAPPENED to be walking out of the gym at the same time as Villanova coach Jay Wright after his team had crushed Seton Hall on Feb. 16. On the way to our cars, as we talked about Villanova's season, he mentioned how they were trying a model for success that included juniors and seniors starting while freshmen and sophomores get minutes and get better. Call it "Four and Done."
Wright specifically mentioned freshman Phil Booth as a player who really gets what they are trying to do. In fact, the coach had talked about Booth at his news conference that night, saying he's never had a player with such obvious ability so readily accept the limited role he had been given.
It helps, Wright said, that Booth is from a basketball family. His dad, also Phil, played at Northeast High and then Coppin State in Baltimore. The younger Phil played for Mount St. Joseph's, a school on the west side of Baltimore with a great basketball tradition.
Booth averages 14 minutes off the bench. He gets 5.5 points per game while making the most of every minute, shooting 55 percent overall, 77 percent from the foul line and 43 percent from the arc. Those would be great numbers for a starter, but are even more impressive for a player who can't count on regular minutes or getting into a rhythm.
The freshman can play either guard spot and, unlike so many young players, he plays old. They are completely different players, and he obviously does not have the same role as Saint Joseph's DeAndre' Bembry did last season, but Booth's demeanor reminds me of Bembry's.
Wright clearly is going to play no favorites down the stretch of this memorable season. His team is deep enough that he can go with the players who are giving his team the best chance to win that day. Saturday at Xavier, it was Kris Jenkins and Booth off the bench. Booth played 22 minutes, third most he has played all season. He looked comfortable with the ball, allowing the very hot Ryan Arcidiacono (11 of 19 from the arc over four games) to play off the ball and run off screens. He looked as comfortable without the ball and on defense. Mostly, he played relaxed and confident, the two most important attributes for a player with talent. And Phil Booth definitely has talent.
Three months ago, I went over the City 6 predictions from the kenpom.com website based on the first few weeks of games.
Villanova was predicted to finish the regular season 26-5 and 14-4 in the Big East. The Wildcats were 27-2 and 14-2 going into last night's game with Creighton.
Temple was picked to finish just 16-15 and 8-10 in the American. But that prediction, as I wrote at the time, was based on Temple without soon-to-be eligible transfers Jesse Morgan and Devin Coleman. The Owls got very good once they became eligible and are now 20-9, 11-5.
St. Joe's and La Salle were picked to have identical records, 14-16, 8-10 in the Atlantic 10. The Hawks are 12-16, 6-10, La Salle 15-14, 7-9. They play tonight at St. Joe's.
Penn was predicted to be 9-19, 5-9 in the Ivy. The Quakers are 7-18, 2-9.
Nobody could have predicted what has gone down at Drexel, with all its injuries, but the prediction was 14-15, 10-8 CAA. They are actually 11-18, 9-9 which, in many ways, is kind of amazing.
Why's Virginia so good?
Tony Bennett's team is like the baseline tennis player who never makes a mistake and, at the moment his opponent makes one, he will capitalize. There are just 58 possessions (third-slowest pace) in a typical Cavaliers game so the importance of each one is amplified. Prior to that bizarre game Monday at Syracuse, they turned it over on just 14 percent of possessions, fifth nationally, so their defense is almost always set. They don't give up offensive rebounds (fourth best). They don't take bad shots. In fact, 58 percent of their points come on two-point shots, very old-school.
They play defense very differently than Kentucky, but are just as effective, holding teams to .840 points per possession. Six teams have scored fewer than 40 points against them. Only five of their wins have been decided by fewer than 10 points. Their only loss was at home to Duke, a game they led 58-50 with 5 minutes to go. The Blue Devils were 1-for-11 from three. Then they went off, going 5-for-6 from the arc in those final 5 minutes, the kind of miraculous shooting performance it may take to beat this team.
How many teams could do what Virginia did against 'Cuse? The Cavaliers looked awful for 14 minutes when they had two points while shooting 1-for-10 with 10 turnovers. It took them 8 minutes to score. But they trailed just 13-2 because of their defense. Once they solved the zone, it was over. Over a 10 1/2-minute stretch, they shot 16-for-21 with one turnover and outscored Syracuse 38-16. And remember that they have played their last seven games without Justin Anderson, one of their two best players who has been out with a broken little finger on his shooting hand. He is due back any time.
The Davidson story
Has any team in America exceeded expectations more than Davidson? Coach Bob McKillop said in October that he was really concerned because he had players recruited for the Southern Conference now playing in the Atlantic 10. Davidson is 21-6, 12-4, tied for first in the final week of the regular season and in the NCAA at-large discussion. Davidson's offense, the country's 10th most efficient, is beautiful to watch. One team all season has gotten to 70 in regulation against Virginia. That was Davidson on Dec. 30 in an 83-72 loss.
This and that
* Villanova is going to end the regular season with eight players with 30 or more assists and five with 40 or more threes. The skill level of every one of the wing players and big man Daniel Ochefu is off the charts and one of many reasons why these Wildcats are going to be a very tough out in the NCAA Tournament.
* My top three national coach of the year candidates, in no particular order, would be Jay Wright, Virginia's Tony Bennett and Kentucky's John Calipari. Player of the year, I like Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, who has every offensive skill and remains a matchup nightmare. How valuable is Kaminsky? Through 28 games, Wisconsin was plus 439 points when he was on the floor, plus 11 points when he was not.
* First player picked in the NBA draft? Kentucky big man Karl-Anthony Towns is starting to get serious talk there, perhaps even ahead of Duke center Jahlil Okafor. You can't judge Towns by stats. Through 29 games, he was averaging 9.3 points and 6.5 rebounds, but was playing just 20 minutes per game. He has a great touch from the foul line and had blocked 67 shots in just 587 minutes. I don't have numbers to back this up, but Kentucky looks a lot better when he is on the floor. They have so many good players that nobody is irreplaceable, but he would the one guy that I would want to keep out of foul trouble come NCAA time.