Collin Gillespie had just done his thing, effectively. There were a timeout and some substitutions and you figured Villanova’s freshman guard would be subbed out. Nope, not yet. Jay Wright decided on the fly — the coach made that clear later — that Gillespie had earned a few more minutes.
There’s a difference between a guy who can provide bench minutes and a guy in the regular rotation, making plays.
“He brought the energy,’’ said Mikal Bridges, Villanova’s top scorer in Thursday’s three-pointer fest against Creighton, a 98-78 final. “I told him during the game, the first half, we were playing off of him. He’s the one who came in here and brought all the energy. He played his tail off.’’
With veteran guard Phil Booth out with a broken hand, Gillespie’s return after six weeks out from a similar injury, a fractured bone in his left hand suffered in December, is key. “We’re going to need him for the rest of the season and …” Bridges said, letting the end of that sentence tail off, probably not looking to predict any particulars for the future of the nation’s top-ranked team.
Gillespie talked about the need to bring that energy. OK, fine, that’s a Villanova mantra, especially for bench guys. The rookie also brought a calmness. Here’s a tip to college basketball: Underestimate this guy at your peril. Pigeon-hole him as one type of player, he might surprise you.
He surprised me last season during a big-time high school doubleheader. I was there to write about other players in the other game when the 6-foot-2 point guard drove on a future Division I high-major big man and threw down a dunk.
“Was that Gillespie?’’ I said to the guy next to me.
His story is one of the great tales of recent local hoops, how he had no Division I scholarship offers going into his senior season at Archbishop Wood. Then Rider came in with an offer. He began climbing the ladder quickly. That dunk got him at least one offer, his coach said. Hofstra told his coach, John Mosco, that the play convinced them. A Villanova assistant coach also was in the building, making his own evaluations.
By the end of the season, playing in a Philadelphia Catholic League stocked with future D-I players, Gillespie earned MVP, outright, no debate. Villanova needed guard depth and came in with the big offer.
That’s not to say Gillespie will be an all-American. Who knows exactly what his future is. His past just suggests that this son of a Philadelphia cop isn’t daunted by current circumstances.
Thursday, Gillespie racked up assists, four before halftime, five for the game, with no turnovers, and he made one three-pointer before the break and one after. He eventually played 23 minutes.
Maybe the play that really showed his comfort level came early in the second half, Villanova up 11, first possession after Gillespie checked in. He had the ball and feinted left and you couldn’t blame Creighton for buying the feint for a step, thinking another pass was coming. Gillespie drove the right side for a layup.
“Against a team like that, you need more perimeter guys than you do big guys,’’ Wright said later. “So his play tonight was going to be really important.”
Like Bridges, Wright talked about the spark Gillespie gave right away, how he “got people shots. … They’re really intelligent offensively; they get mismatches that they want. They tried to go at him. I thought he defended his man really well. That really inspired our guys.”
Creighton coach Greg McDermott mentioned that he had picked the poison of playing more zone, and kind of shook his head after Villanova stayed outside and made 19 threes.
“It’s a video game, their offense,’’ McDermott said, mentioning that it seemed to be impossible for it to be more efficient than last year’s version but it is.
Like most coaches, Wright is giving minutes only to players he trusts won’t gum up the works. Enter Gillespie after his quick injury recovery. He’s not going to let you see him sweat. Just assume he has. If there’s still a little pain, don’t bother asking about it.
‘It was just weak when I came back so I did rehab for a week or two,’’ Gillespie said after getting cleared. “Just getting the feel of dribbling a basketball and catching a basketball. It was difficult at first. As I kept practicing and playing, it got easier. I did more workouts than I usually do trying to just catch passes and dribble the ball. I feel good now.”
During a game, he said, he doesn’t feel the tape on his hand.
“It’s healed, but it’s still weak,’’ Gillespie said. Every two weeks there was an X-ray, he said, and he did a lot of extra work when the cast came off. “A lot of grip stuff — I was doing stuff like mobilization with my wrist,’’ he said. “Just keeping my hand moving so it didn’t tighten up. When it came out of the cast, it was really stiff. I couldn’t really move my fingers a lot.”
He knew what it would take coming in to get minutes, Gillespie said, talking about defense, rebounding, the things coaches usually see as requirements. On offense, he said, the thing is to be confident. His teammates tell him all the time to catch and shoot it.
If you look like you belong, you belong.