By Steve Silverman
Booth injury could take its toll on top-ranked Wildcats
Villanova continues to handle the pressure of their position, and the Wildcats remain in the No. 1 spot in the national rankings.
However, head coach Jay Wright’s team may be hard-pressed to stay there after junior guard Phil Booth fractured a bone in his shooting hand in Tuesday night’s 89-69 victory over the Providence Friars.
Booth was averaging 11.6 points per game while shooting 43 percent from three-point range. He has also done a nice job of delivering the ball to his teammates with a 2.5-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
“All of us are disappointed for Phil,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said in a statement. “He is one of our captains and the respect for him among his teammates is off the charts. Phil is as mentally tough a player as we have had in our program. We know he’ll come back better and stronger from this.”
Booth is one of those glue players who contributes more than his stats. He is an important piece of the puzzle who often finds the open man, or makes the pass that leads to the assist on a big possession.
The Wildcats will likely turn to Collin Gillespie to take over much of Booth’s responsibility. Gillespie had a broken hand earlier in the season, but he came back a week ago and is ready to take over a key role.
There’s no reason to feel too sorry for Villanova, as they have one of the best 1-2 punches in college basketball. Jalen Brunson is averaging 18.8 points per game and connecting on 56.2 percent of his shots from the field, while Mikal Bridges is averaging 16.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
Gaels in unfamiliar position at top of West Coast Conference
St. Mary’s has been battling Gonzaga for the top spot in the West Coast Conference for years, but the Gaels almost always finish second to their long-time rivals.
That may not be the case in the 2017-2018 season, as head coach Randy Bennett’s team is rolling along with a 19-2 record and an 8-0 conference mark. The Bulldogs have not turned into slouches and are 17-4 and have a 7-1 record in the conference, but the Gaels beat Gonzaga on its home court last week, and they may have leapfrogged their long-time rivals.
The Gaels have impressed the competition they see regularly in the conference.
“I would say it is safe to say right now that they are in a little run of probably their best teams that they’ve had in the history of their program,” said Brigham Young head coach Dave Rose. “They are pretty impressive.”
Jock Landale of Australia is the team’s leading scorer with 22.4 points per night. He is also averaging 10.2 rebounds per game shooting 65.7 percent from the field. He is getting plenty of help from fellow Austalian Emmett Naar, who is scoring 10.9 points per game, and handing out an eye-opening 9.1 assists per night.
Calvin Hermanson, from relatively nearby Oregon, is averaging 12.3 points per game and connecting on 45.5 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
The Gaels have been respected as a winning team since the 2003-04 season, but they could make some real noise in the NCAA tournament this year as the best the WCC has to offer.
Loyola-Chicago is the team to keep watching
The Missouri Valley Conference is not always going to get the attention it deserves, even though it is one of the more underrated mid-majors in the country.
However, the one team from that league that college basketball fans need to be watching this year is Loyola-Chicago, because the Ramblers have been playing sensational basketball under head coach Porter Moser this year.
Loyola is regularly an afterthought in Chicago, as it simply does not get the coverage it deserves. Chicago is clearly a pro sports city led by the Cubs, Bears, Bulls and Blackhawks (sorry, White Sox fans), and when it comes to college sports, Loyola falls way behind Notre Dame, Northwestern and even DePaul.
Loyola, the 1963 national champions, have a 17-4 overall record and a 7-2 mark in the conference, and they have reeled off six straight wins as they head into their January 28 home game against Northern Iowa.
Clayton Custer is the Ramblers’ leading scorer with 12.9 points per game, and he is shooting 51.8 percent from the field.
He is joined by double-digit scorers Andre Jackson (11.9 ppg), Marques Townes (11.7 ppg) and Donte Ingram (11.6 ppg, team-high 6.4 rebounds per game).
‘‘We feel like we’re a top-tier team in Illinois,’’ said Ingram, who played his high school basketball in Chicago and opted to stay home.
‘‘We can play with anybody, especially in this [area],’’ Custer said. ‘‘We can play with Notre Dame. We can play with Northwestern.’’
Loyola-Chicago may not be the most visible program, but it has quality wins and scoring depth, and the Ramblers are one of the most underrated teams in the nation.
Numbers, numbers, numbers ….
Freshman sensation Trae Young of Oklahoma continues to lead the nation in scoring and assists. Young is averaging a monstrous 30.3 points per game and is also handing out 9.6 assists per night. … Kansas big man Udoka Azubuike is the nation’s most accurate shooter. The 7-footer is connecting on 77.4 percent of his shots from the field. … Power forward Devontae Cacock of the North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks is the nation’s leading rebounder, coming down with 12.7 rebounds per game. … Ajdin Penava of Marshall is blocking 4.9 shots per game, slightly ahead of Texas freshman Mo Bamba, who is swatting 4.4 shots per night.