John Mosco, the hoops coach at Archbishop Wood High, came from Neumann-Goretti, where they didn’t really like their basketball players playing football. At Wood, he said, it’s a little different. They can use some of those guys, so they live with football players' not joining until a little into the hoops season.
That was the case with this freshman, Collin Gillespie.
“I got there. I don’t know him from Adam,’’ Mosco recalled over the phone Wednesday morning, but his assistant, Chris Roantree, knew Gillespie from travel-team ball and vouched for him. “Chris said, ‘He’s good. Put him on varsity.’ “
Mosco likes to have talented players get a taste of things on a varsity bench. He remembers Gillespie’s sophomore year, Wood was undefeated when Gillespie came over from football. In Mosco’s mind, Gillespie was one of his five best players. Except Gillespie went to him, told his coach to bring him off the bench. Things were rolling without him. That lasted a few more games until Mosco made the switch.
Now that the rest is history, and Gillespie plays for Villanova, you can bring out the cliches. Gritty, team player, etc. Just don’t miss that Gillespie, the son of a Philadelphia police officer, also brings street smarts. Yes, he was way under-recruited, not getting D-I offers until the start of his senior year. Yes, he was a late Villanova recruit, after Quade Green committed to Kentucky and Lonnie Walker committed to Miami. Finally, after Eli Brooks committed to Michigan, Ashley Howard, then Jay Wright’s top assistant at Villanova, called ready to offer, except Villanova didn’t want to offer if the answer was no.
“We’re sitting down at the Slam Dunk to the Beach, me, him, his mom and dad,’’ Mosco said. “What would you do? He’s just sitting there like a poker player, not saying anything.”
Then, Mosco said, maybe Gillespie broke his stones a little bit.
“I’m just worried about what we’re doing, trying to win the Catholic League,’’ Mosco remembered Gillespie saying.
Of course, Gillespie visited Villanova, and he committed on the spot, and Wood won the Catholic League, and Gillespie was the league’s MVP. The whole storybook thing continued when Villanova won last year’s NCAA title and the freshman from Wood was a big part of it, grabbing rebounds, playing big-time defense against Michigan.
This season, the story offered a plot twist. Early on, Michigan showed up and tore Villanova apart. Gillespie suddenly looked at least a step slow. Was he not ready for a bigger role?
Poker players need to take in all the data and act accordingly, in quick time. Gillespie explained after Villanova lost to Furman that he’d been gambling too much starting this season. Tuesday night was another huge test. St. John’s came in nationally ranked, led by Shamorie Ponds, a big-time guard playing so well he was named last week’s national player of the week. Villanova changed up defenses, mostly playing man-to-man, some matchup zone mixed in. Phil Booth and other guards and even forward Eric Paschall had the assignment sometimes, but Gillespie had it the most.
Booth was the star of another Villanova comeback special, 76-71. Paschall was a big part of it, too. But the subplot was how Booth hit big late threes and Ponds, despite scoring 23 points of his own, didn’t kill Villanova late, shooting 2-for-9 in the second half.
Gillespie’s 34-minute stat line didn’t jump out, but it all added up beyond the 7 points, with 5 defensive rebounds and 6 assists, and the heavy lifting of the Ponds assignment. “He takes great pride,’’ Wright said after the St. John’s game about why Gillespie had the assignment much of the time. “He fights over ball screens really well. He knows our scouting report the best probably of anybody. He’s just really valuable that way.”
You might have thought that Wright would have put a taller guy on Ponds, slow him that way. (Or, I might have.) But the trust swung toward Gillespie.
“We know he’s going to get his, because of how much he has the ball in his hands,’’ Gillespie said later, standing near the court. “We have to guard him as a team. I think we did a pretty good job of that. Just trying to slow him down as much as we can.”
You have to “play hand on ball” a little out of the scoring area, Gillespie added about Ponds, “because he’s able to get rhythm in his shots, just shoot from deep.”
Back to that Michigan game, this season’s version.
“Yeah, in practice, in games, I was reaching a little bit, getting overextended,’’ Gillespie said. “My weight was forward. I’m just trying not to gamble as much, keep my weight back, keep people in front of me, contest late.”
Was the gambling coming from confidence?
“Yeah, yeah, for sure,’’ Gillespie said. “You have that confidence within yourself, just from guarding people your whole life, going against tough players your whole life.”
Tuesday night, after a slow start, the poker chips eventually ended up in Villanova’s pile. Freshmen Saddiq Bey and Cole Swider and Jahvon Quinerly all made significant contributions, showing their own growth. Gillespie wasn’t the star. Just don’t ignore the importance of helping keep the other guy from breaking out.
“He figures it out,’’ his old high school coach said of Gillespie. “That’s the trust Jay has in him. That’s what I had in him.”