A new Big East Conference season begins Wednesday night for top-ranked Villanova, which will take on DePaul at the Pavilion, but its task to win a fourth consecutive regular-season championship seems more difficult this time around.
Junior guard Phil Booth, who started the first three games of the season but hasn't played since Nov. 17, still doesn't seem much closer to returning to action because of pain in his surgically repaired left knee.
Villanova coach Jay Wright has said from the start that Booth would not return to action until he is completely free of pain. He said Tuesday that the team has restarted the process of helping Booth return.
He said the process starts with "strength training and legwork to see if he can be pain-free. If we get past that, then we're going to get him out on the court to see if he can be pain-free on the court. So we're early in the process with him and we're kind of restarting it now that we're back."
Wright said no deadline has been set on when he would have to make a decision to shut down Booth for the season and have him redshirt.
"We don't have an exact time yet for that decision," he said.
Without Booth, the Wildcats (12-0) have been going with a seven-man rotation, which has meant major minutes for leading scorer Josh Hart. Hart is eighth among Big East players in average minutes at 33.2 per game. Starters Kris Jenkins and Mikal Bridges have averaged well over 30 minutes since Booth has been out.
As Villanova begins conference play, Wright said he feels "pretty good" about where his team is at, and is pleased to see that young players such as Bridges, guard Jalen Brunson, and reserves Donte DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall are developing.
"I think those guys are making great strides," he said. "Couple that with the leadership of our three seniors . . . I'm really pleased with their leadership."
As for what he would like to see improve, Wright said "probably our defense and our rebounding can get better, and I think we can get better as a team passing. We're not turning it over as much, but we can be sloppy with the ball sometimes."
DePaul (7-6) finished 3-15 in the Big East last season and went 1-8 on the road. The Blue Demons are led by 6-foot-6 sophomore Eli Cain, a native of Willingboro who attended St. Benedict Prep in north Jersey. Cain is averaging 18.2 points and has knocked down better than 40 percent of his three-point attempts.
"He's put a lot of work into his game to play at this level," DePaul coach Dave Leitao said. "We've talked since the end of last season about making the jump to the next stage of his development, and I think he's done a really good job in that."