– by Adesina O. Koiki
A Lot of Sports Talk editor-in-chief
NEW YORK — If the young nucleus of the 2018-19 Villanova Wildcats was going to play a major part in the high-profile games that it surely had to perform well in to defend multiple championships won last season, the video game playing had to stop. The hard work they initially thought they had to put in to keep the Wildcats atop the perch of college basketball was not enough. Not close.
In turn, the growing pains came in swift and harsh, from its no-show in a national championship rematch against Michigan early in the season to a shocking Big Five loss against Penn not too long before the start of conference play. These were games by definition, but defending a national championship was far from a game.
It is a good thing then that Villanova still had a couple of veterans accustomed to achieving the Villanova standard of excellence, and once the new blood was able to finally get on the same page with them and their Hall-of-Fame head coach to be, the Wildcats navigated their way to, after last night, that familiar perch: champions of the Big East Conference.
The dynamic duo of guard Phil Booth and forward Eric Paschall, members of the Wildcats in each of the two national championships won by Villanova won in the past three seasons, did last night what they have done all season, leading by example on the court in bringing the Wildcats to victory, one that brought a Big East Tournament championship with it as the top seed defeated No. 3 Seton Hall 74-72 in an old-fashioned Big East Conference rock fight. Paschall led the Wildcats in scoring with 17 while Booth capped off his weekend at MSG with 16 points and took home the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.
But their biggest role this season has been as shepherds to the flock of freshmen and sophomores that have replaced the likes of Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman, centerpieces to last year’s national championship team that are all playing in the NBA. The talent was there but the results and, at times, the commitment, was not at the level of Booth’s and Paschall’s, putting extra weight on the shoulders of two men who already were the main focus of every opponent’s game plan in stopping the Wildcats.
“They really have been like coaches this season,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright about Booth and Paschall. “We can do so much on the court, but they’ve got to take guys in the locker room and teach them how they prepare for practice, how they prepare for games. They’ve got to teach them how to sleep at night, how to eat the right way. They’ve been like big brothers, fathers almost to these guys.”
In other words, resident advisers disguised as all-conference basketball players. For Booth and Paschall, they could not afford to have senioritis set in, especially when the Wildcats struggled out of the gate and their season was close to being on the brink before the start of conference play.
“It’s been frustrating for them,” Wright said. “There’s a lot of times in games when these young guys don’t know what they’re doing, and these guys are just trying to cover for everybody. It’s just been incredible experience of leadership by these two.”
The leadership they have shown easily was reflected in the play of the neophytes, particularly against the Pirates tonight: freshman Saddiq Bey had 16 points and 10 rebounds, his fourth double-digit scoring game in his last five; sophomore Jermaine Samuels scored 12, including hitting a clutch three-pointer with just under four minutes remaining to give Villanova a 66-59 lead; and sophomores Collin Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree played vital minutes, with the former hitting two three-pointers tonight while the latter grabbed seven rebounds off the bench.
“They’ve had times throughout the year when they’ve done a lot and won us some games — Jermaine, Saddiq, Collin, Dada (Cosby-Roundtree). The list goes on,” Booth said. “When they score and make points, that doesn’t really surprise me. As a team, defensively is more important to us. We’ve got to connect as a group of five on the court.”
Wright admitted that the connection his older players might have wanted to make with their understudies earlier in the season would have been more along the lines of a strike in anger than a tacit understanding of what needs to be executed on the court, as he mentioned Samuels’ propensity for playing video games at the beginning of season as an example of some of the things his younger players needed to cut out to attain the razor-sharp focus needed to excelling in a Villanova uniform.
“We lost our two top assistants [to head coaching jobs],” Wright said. “We had young coaches who did a great job, and [Booth and Paschall] were like coaches. I would really go to them and have meetings with them. ‘We’ve got to do this. We’ve got to get the guys to do this. You have to teach them this. You have to be patient. Don’t strangle Dada.’ We have to keep teaching them, and they did it.”
The lessons were learned by Booth and Paschall from former players like Josh Hart and Darryl Reynolds, members of the 2016 national championship team who were inside Madison Square Garden watching the contest. All of the players who have been a part of the Wildcats’ four Big East Tournament titles in the past five seasons and their two national championships in the last three have a role in turning this run into one of the greatest in the history of college basketball.
That now includes the video-game-playing, near-stranglehold-inducing youngsters on this year’s team, who will continue their development in a few days while trying to defend a national championship.
“We have really good guys, really, really good guys that allow us to coach them,” Wright said. “So it’s really been rewarding. This is a real special one.”
*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Saturday evening’s game, with all photos taken by ALOST photographer Arturo Holmes. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are 12 pictures in total.