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Cooney: Gillspie key to connecting 'Nova's past with present

12/02/2019, 6:00am EST
By Kevin Cooney

Kevin Cooney (@KevinCooney)

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Collin Gillespie (above) has to be Villanova's leader as a junior. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

By the time Ashley Howard had stepped to the podium on Sunday evening, Collin Gillespie and Jay Wright had already retreated to the locker room at Finneran Pavilion.

It was pretty clear what the La Salle coach had as a game plan for his first game back on the Main Line: he was going to make sure that anyone else on the Villanova roster not wearing a No. 2 jersey was going to beat him.

“I mean, he scored the first 11 points for them (down in Myrtle Beach) last week in a few games,” Howard said with a chuckle after the Wildcats’ 85-72 win over the Explorers. “He’s their primary point guard. You better have an eye on him.”

And this is where ultimately the storyline for this Villanova season could end up developing. They need the junior point guard to know when it’s needed for him to be the scorer and when he has to become the distributor. For all of the talent and potential that Villanova has, the Wildcats will go as far as Collin Gillespie leads them.

And that’s why one guy is going to be so critical in all of this. Consider that of all the players on Villanova’s roster––only one (Gillespie) saw any meaningful time in the run to the National Championship in 2018. 

Gillespie has been compared to Ryan Arcidiacono because they are similar in background as Bux-Mont area guards who have gotten the most of their talent to play big roles in the Big East. (Arcidiacono played at Neshaminy, Gillespie went to Archbishop Wood.)

The one thing that Gillespie has to do now that Arcidiacono excelled at was becoming a driver of talent. Yes, the talent around “Arch” was probably better –– led by NBA players in Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson, along with a sniper in Kris Jenkins. He also was part of a guard-oriented offense.

Gillespie’s crew is very different. This Villanova team is not going to be so guard-oriented. Yes, Bryan Antoine and Justin Moore (who scored 25 in the win over La Salle) will have their moments. Still, Villanova could end up being stretch forward dominant with Jermaine Samuels, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Saddiq Bey and Brandon Slater all looking like pieces going forward.

“It’s not that we are a young team,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said on Sunday night. “We’re an inexperienced team. Juniors who haven’t been go-to guys and sophomores who haven’t been leaders. But they are learning.”

La Salle went out and forced a ton of face-guarding on Sunday night against Gillespie. The best thing that happened was Moore stood up in those first 20 minutes, scored 15 points and gave the Wildcats a cushion that was strong enough to hold despite a sloppy second half.

“I have to know when to distribute and when it is time to go and score,” Gillespie said Sunday night. “I know my teammates are going to be aggressive. So when they do that, I have to get it in their hands and find a way to get it to them.”

So that’s why it is so critical that Gillespie becomes that guy. He is the bridge to that era which drove all of these guys to the Main Line. He has to show everything that Wright preaches about “Villanova basketball” to be true. 

To this point, the lessons have seemed fairly smooth except for that pounding at Ohio State a few weeks ago. Judging any college basketball team at Thanksgiving –– even the ones that will turn into the definition of elite –– is a very dangerous proposition. There are so many variables that come into play before the chips fall in the beginning of March that you can end up with a carton of eggs dripping down your face in an instant.

That being said, this Villanova team has a chance to be pretty remarkable by the time things are finished. It isn’t just because they can be an extremely good basketball team –– which they could be.

Every good team starts with that guy who has been through this all before. Fairly or not, that title falls on Gillespie. How he handles it will tell a lot about where the Wildcats end up going from here.


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