'Nova is done, but Collin Gillespie looks to win title of his own

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Collin Gillespie of Archbishop Wood celebrates during the Catholic League final against Neumann-Goretti on Feb. 27, 2017

The Archbishop Wood boys' basketball team had practiced early Saturday morning in its usual place, the little gym next door at Nativity of Our Lord School, which gave Collin Gillespie plenty of time to drive the nine miles back to his home in Huntingdon Valley to catch the 2:50 p.m. tipoff for Villanova-Wisconsin.

Gillespie, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound senior point guard and the Philadelphia Catholic League's most valuable player this season, had more than merely a passing interest in the game; he had committed to Villanova in January. He settled in front of the basement television with a couple of buddies and his dad, all of them eager to see the top-seeded Wildcats beat the eighth-seeded Badgers, advance to the NCAA tournament's round of 16, and take another step toward defending their national championship. But then Bronson Koenig was flushing jumpers and Nigel Hayes was driving the baseline for the winning layup and Wisconsin was celebrating a 65-62 upset, and what did Gillespie think as he was watching it?

"It happens," he said Monday afternoon. "It was a little upsetting, but it happens."

Gillespie didn't appear especially perturbed by the abrupt end to Villanova's season, and he had good reasons not to be. He was back at Nativity on Monday for another practice, one day after Wood had routed Spring Grove, 71-46, in the PIAA Class 5A quarterfinals, one day before Wood's semifinal game against Abington Heights.

He wasn't the only Villanova recruit still competing for a state championship as of Tuesday night - Neumann-Goretti and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree downed Del-Val Charter, 76-47, at the Liacouras Center in the 3A bracket - but it can't be disputed that Gillespie was the prince of the city this season.

He scored 66 points in Wood's two victories over Neumann-Goretti, the second in the PCL title game. In the state tournament, he put up 31 points in a 92-62 victory over Oxford in the first round, then had 14 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists Sunday night against Spring Grove. Gillespie scored 18 points Tuesday night in a 68-57 win over Abington Heights.

He admitted that it's difficult not to look ahead to his college career "because you're always excited to go to the next stage and play at the highest level." But considering that he's averaging more than 22 points a game and has Wood (27-3) one win away from a state championship, he seems to be handling the challenge reasonably well.

Truth be told, Gillespie doesn't appear to get especially perturbed or worked up about much of anything. "Talking to you, did he smile?" Wood coach John Mosco asked. Only once, actually: when he was told he looked like former Villanova point guard Ryan Arcidiacono. He laughed sheepishly.

"I get that a lot," he said.

Even the revelation last year that 'Nova was interested in him didn't elicit much more than a yawn from him - a curious reaction, one would think, from a kid who rode the express elevator to become a high-Division I recruit. "It was always my goal, to play at the highest level," he said. "I always thought I could play there, growing up. This year, I just played with a different confidence."

After hyperextending his left knee last summer, Gillespie received scholarship offers from Drexel and Rider, among others. But Villanova assistant coach Ashley Howard tracked his development from a distance. In late December, while Wood was playing at a tournament in Delaware and Gillespie was beginning to attract more attention, Villanova's coaches asked if Gillespie would commit to the program if the Wildcats offered him a scholarship. Mosco; Gillespie; Gillespie's parents, Jim and Therese; and his AAU coach huddled to discuss matters.

"We go to a little waiting area," Mosco said. "His mom's like, what, no reaction? He's like, 'Mom, I'm going to do what I've done for the last 15 years. I'm going to practice, work out, play basketball, and whatever happens, happens.' "

Less than three weeks later, Jay Wright called Gillespie to offer him a scholarship. Parallels between Arcidiacono (a Neshaminy High alumnus) and Gillespie - their roots at Bucks County high schools, their positions, their styles of the play, their faces, their demeanors - are easy enough to draw, but not all of them are perfect. Villanova was coming off a 13-19 season in 2011-12 when Arcidiacono entered the program and as a freshman earned a spot in the starting lineup. Their disappointing exit from this year's tournament notwithstanding, the Wildcats went 32-4 and will reload with Jalen Brunson (if he doesn't turn pro), Phil Booth (if he returns from his knee injury), Mikal Bridges, Eric Paschall, Donte DiVincenzo, and Omari Spellman.

"I definitely want to, if I can, get on the court in some way. I'm going to do what it takes," said Gillespie, who as a sophomore stopped playing football so he could focus exclusively on basketball. "I need to get bigger and stronger and faster going into next year, so I definitely need to get into the weight room. On the offensive end, sharing the ball and getting my teammates involved and finding my teammates is what I really do best, and I can make open shots when I have to."

The team he'll play for next season could have used that skill against Wisconsin, but he'll get his chance to contribute in due time. So late Monday afternoon, while Jay Wright was at the Pavilion, telling reporters that he couldn't bring himself to watch any NCAA tournament games Sunday because the Wisconsin loss was still too raw and fresh, Collin Gillespie was in a little gym 22 miles to the northeast, practicing with the team he plays for this season, trying not to look ahead, trying to win a championship of his own first.

msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski