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“Good Things Happen…” (Jimmy V Classic Recap)

Robert Cole/ALOST

 

akoiki-passport2 – by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief

 

NEW YORK — There was virtually nothing the Gonzaga could do on Tuesday night to stop Villanova’s dynamic duo of redshirt juniors, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth, who combined for 48 points in the Wildcats’ 88-72 victory in the Jimmy V Classic, a scoreline that barely was indicative of the dominance Villanova showed. Watching Booth’s drives to the basket and Bridges’ dominating two-way play, especially in one second-half sequence that set the Madison Square Garden atmosphere alight, was to assume that both were bound for stardom once they touched down in the Philadelphia Main Line.

As their careers eventually evolved, it turned out that their standout play for the Wildcats so far this season was forged in the years that they had to watch their teammates do what they were recruited to campus to do.

Both Bridges and Booth, in different seasons and for different reasons, sat out an entire year as a redshirt, watching their teammates complete the job of maintaining the Wildcats’ place atop the Big East and their status as a school on the short list of NCAA title contenders each season. In 2016, both Booth and Bridges played integral roles on the court as the Wildcats went from perennial contenders to champions, defeating North Carolina in the national title game in Houston.

In that title game against the Tar Heels, Booth scored a career-high 20 points. Tonight, against last season’s national runner-up in Gonzaga, Booth matched that career high, hitting 9-of-14 shots from the field while draining two three-pointers. In between those two games was a lost season, at least in terms of playing competitive basketball; Booth underwent surgery on his left knee just a month after the 2016 national title game and, after playing the first three games of last season, sat out the rest of the season due to inflammation of that same knee.

Instead of suiting up for the team that would win another Big East regular season and tournament championship, as well as earn another No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Booth was wearing a suit on the bench.

“Last year was hard, but I learned a lot from that year sitting out,” said Booth after the game. “I missed the game a lot. I learned to appreciate my teammates more and all the things they do. I saw the game from a totally different perspective, so to get back out this year playing and trying to incorporate what I learned last year, that’s what I really tried to do. It’s great to be back out there playing.”

Booth’s perspective on basketball wasn’t the only thing that changed during that year rehabilitating.

“That year can change your life, healthy or not, because you’re going to get better,” said Booth. “You still get to practice every day against everybody. You can work on your game more than usual. I think it’s a very productive year. It’s not easy, but it’s a very productive year. A lot of people get better.”

Bridges’ year to sit and get better came right as he stepped on campus, redshirting his freshman season that saw Villanova set a then-school record for victories at 33 while only losing two games before the start of the NCAA Tournament. While Bridges clearly had the talent to play at this level, his coaches and teammates, who routinely saw that talent on display practice after practice, would have to continue to encourage him to unveil that more in game competition, not being as deferential as he was while veterans like Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu, Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins did the heavy lifting.

One play in Tuesday’s game illustrated the growth of Bridges into the team’s alpha male and go-to player. With Villanova up 64-51, Bridges attacked the basket on a drive from the left wing and finished with a thunderous one-handed dunk over Bulldogs’ big men Jacob Larsen and Killian Tillie. On the ensuing defensive possession, Bridges volleyball spiked a layup attempt of Josh Perkins out of bounds, bringing the numerous Villanova supporters at The Garden to their feet while exhorting his teammates on the court and on the bench with chest bumps and loud words of encouragement.

Bridges has been carrying that play in practice over the years into games this season, pacing the team in the Gonzaga win with a career-high 28 points and now leading the team with 19 points per contest.

“Just being aggressive,” said Bridges about his dunk-block sequence. “Offensively, I just saw a lane and tried to go up and be strong. Ever since my freshman year, I’ve laid the ball up a lot and coaches, the seniors, they used to get on me for that. [I’m] just trying to mature as a player.”

That maturation, according to head coach Jay Wright, is something similar to what he saw in Hart, who went from a role player to an integral member on a national championship team to a consensus first-team All-America last season. (Hart was drafted in the first round of this year’s NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers.)

“He’s a real high-character guy,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright of Bridges. “He probably could have done more of this last year and the year before, but he just gradually got better and better and he knows it this year. He’s the leader. He’s the captain, so he’s playing with a lot more freedom, aggressiveness as he says.”

“Last year, he would pass up a lot of those shots just to get it to Kris [Jenkins] or Josh [Hart], not because he wasn’t confident,” continued Wright. “He just knows it’s his turn and he’s ready for it. He’s worked hard to improve his game and he’s ready mentally and he’s ready skill-wise.”

With the five-star, one-and-done recruits featuring prominently on some of the best programs in America, it’s been the Wildcats, full of veteran leadership that were not as highly recruited as others, who have recorded the most wins of any school since the start of the 2013-14 season with 138, now two wins ahead of Gonzaga’s 136. Year after year, Villanova’s stars prove themselves as some of the best players in the country.

Even if they have to wait a year on the sidelines to show the country what they’re all about.

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