SAN ANTONIO, Texas – They might seem distant memories now, when it’s easy to recall Donte DiVincenzo’s parking-lot three-pointers and Jalen Brunson’s tears of joy and the confetti sprinkling Jay Wright’s perfect hair like Christmas snow. But honest, there were a few moments of trepidation for Villanova on Monday night in its 79-62 victory over Michigan, and here was one: The Wolverines’ leading by 21-16 with 9 minutes, 15 seconds left in the first half, big man Moe Wagner having his way, and ‘Nova’s Phil Booth picking up his second foul.
To the bench went Booth. Into the game went Collin Gillespie: a 6-foot-2 freshman guard, averaging just 14 minutes and 4.3 points a game, the Philadelphia Catholic League MVP on a state-championship team last year, a surprising contributor on a national-championship team this year. When Gillespie checked back out with 5:24 left in the half, Villanova led, 25-23. Over that 3:51 span, he had hit two free throws and grabbed a defensive rebound, and the Wildcats had outscored Michigan, 9-2.
Just to reconfirm that the link between his presence and the rally wasn’t coincidental, Gillespie re-entered the game with 2:50 left in the half, this time with ‘Nova up four. From then until the halftime buzzer, he pulled down three more rebounds, Wagner and Michigan went scoreless, and the Wildcats stretched their lead to nine, 37-28. In 16 minutes of action Monday, Gillespie scored four points; had five rebounds, an assist, and a steal; and was a dervish on defense. He never took a shot from the field, yet his effect on the game could hardly have been more profound if he had.
“I just try to bring energy and keep us connected on both ends of the floor as best I can,” Gillespie said after the game as he sat in a chair at his locker, the national-championship trophy on the floor between his legs. “That’s really just my role: trying to be a leader and just keeping our group connected on both ends of the floor.”
That he had any role at all was, in and of itself, a welcome development. Jay Wright, his coaching staff, and even Gillespie himself had entered the season anticipating that Gillespie would redshirt. He was no man-child as an 18-year-old, and his rise into a Catholic League star had been so rapid and so unexpected that it was natural to presume he would need a year to mature and adjust physically to a higher level of basketball. All anyone could say for certain about him was that he was a gritty kid and a facial doppelganger for former ‘Nova point guard Ryan Arcidiacono. The two even shared ties to Bucks County – Arcidiacono played at Neshaminy; Gillespie, at Archbishop Wood – but that was as far as the familiarity went. “I had never met him before, never seen him play,” Arcidiacono said Monday night.
But Ashley Howard, Wright’s top assistant, had, and he saw enough to recruit Gillespie. When preseason practice began, Gillespie so impressed the coaching staff that Wright told him, We’re going to need you. And when Gillespie broke his left hand in December and missed eight games and again considered redshirting, Wright and the Wildcats banked that, come March, having a guard who could spell Booth, Brunson, and/or DiVincenzo would help.
“That dude’s been a great guy, a spark plug,” said Mike Nardi, Villanova’s director of basketball operations and himself a former point guard under Wright. “He brings toughness, energy. He has a ridiculous I.Q. He knows what we do in and out. When our guys aren’t having the kind of half they’re expected to have, a guy like that, who’s as solid as a rock, can keep you at a level where he can pick us up.
“Credit to Ash. He saw something in him no one else did. He was a gem in the rough. We knew if we could work with him and teach him how we play, he would be unbelievable in our system. It’s a credit to him, too. Think about who he’s playing against every day in practice. If you don’t have confidence in yourself, if you don’t believe in who you are as a person and a player, you can get beat up a little bit and put your head down. He’s a competitor, brings it every day. He’s made those guys better in practice.”
He made them better Monday night, in the game’s most important early moments. Afterward, Villanova trainer Jeff Pierce told him, Thank God you didn’t redshirt, and Gillespie, his teammates, and his coaches could own up to just how confident they had been ahead of Monday’s game. Wagner, for instance, had nine points in the game’s first five minutes but finished with just 16 as Villanova used its more mobile players, such as Mikal Bridges, to guard him. The key, one member of the program said, was to remind the Wildcats that, even though Wagner is 6-11, he doesn’t often play in the post: “We could have put Collin Gillespie on him.” It was meant as the highest of compliments.