For Villanova head coach Jay Wright, the seeds for guard Phil Booth's performance during the Wildcats' 77-74 victory against North Carolina in the national championship game April 4 were planted in atypical fashion.
"We have a lot of great alumni in the Baltimore area and they're big basketball fans, and they follow the Catholic League in Baltimore," Wright said at the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation's sixth annual College Basketball Tip-Off fundraiser and luncheon in Baltimore Oct. 26. "They follow everything in Baltimore. So they tell us about all the players all the time. They're about 50 percent on their judgment. Sometimes they're right, sometimes they're wrong. But we always listen."
The alumni were certainly correct in the case of Booth, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound junior guard out of Baltimore who played at Mount St. Joseph's for four seasons. Wright credited Frank Culotta -- "one of our great Baltimore alums" -- for first discovering Booth when he was a freshman for the Gaels.
Booth committed to Villanova in July 2013, before his senior year at Mount St. Joe's. He was named
The Baltimore Sun
's All-Metro Player of the Year for his efforts during the 2013-14 season, during which the Gaels compiled a 34-5 record and won both the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association "A" Conference and Baltimore Catholic League titles.
Almost three years later, Villanova's diligence in recruiting Booth was rewarded in the biggest way possible. Booth came off the bench to score a team-high 20 points during the Wildcats' victory against the Tar Heels, going 6-for-6 from the free-throw line and 2-for-2 from 3-point land. He also scored 10 points during Villanova's 99-51 victory versus Oklahoma in the national semifinal two days earlier.
"In that championship game, we don't win the game without him, bottom line," said Wright, who mentioned Booth fought through both knee trouble and mononucleosis last season. "There were a lot of games during the year like that, where he'd come off the bench and give us big numbers."
Booth averaged 14.5 minutes per game as a freshman and 21.9 minutes per contest last year. His role has a chance to increase once again this year. He averaged seven points and 2.1 assists per contest last season, though a fully healthy Booth -- he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in May -- could be capable of more.
"He's been so patient, so intelligent about the learning process that he's in a great position to be a leader this year, and he's playing that way," Wright said. "He's been great in the preseason."
Booth isn't the only Baltimore native who played a major role in Villanova's championship; Daniel Ochefu, a 6-foot-11, 245-pound forward, also fits that description.
Ochefu said on Glenn Clark Radio Oct. 25 that he lived in Maryland for the first 12 years of his life. His family then moved to Nigeria to connect with extended relatives and experience the Nigerian culture, but Ochefu returned to the States for high school, playing hoops for three years at Westtown School in West Chester, Pa., where Wright and his staff discovered him. He played
his senior season at Downingtown West High School in Downington, Pa.
"Daniel always demanded that he was from Baltimore. And the guys on the team would bust his chops all the time," Wright said. "They'd say, 'Dude, you're at Westtown. This is a boarding school.' And he would always say, 'No, I'm a Baltimore guy.' He always took great pride in that."
Ochefu played four years for the Wildcats. He totaled 141 games for Villanova, averaging 7.2 points and 6.6 rebounds throughout the course of his career. Ochefu saved the best for last, however. He averaged 11.5 points and 7.2 rebounds on a sprained right ankle during Villanova's run through the NCAA tournament last spring. Wright called Ochefu "one of the most competitive, intelligent forwards we've ever had, we've ever coached."
Ochefu was one of three undrafted free agents to make the Washington Wizards' 15-man roster this fall. He made his debut Oct. 27 in Atlanta, hauling in a rebound during four minutes of play. Ochefu will be one of the Wizards' reserve big men this year and looks to bring the same skillset that helped Villanova win a national title.
"I think he's going to be a long-term pro because of what he brings to the table. He's not relying on athleticism and flash and flair," Wright said. "His intelligence, toughness, character, competitiveness -- that's something that can last through a career and can help a lot of different teams in a lot of ways."
Issue 227: November 2016