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Verlin: Gillespie's storybook college career ends with nightmare

03/05/2021, 1:45am EST
By Josh Verlin

Collin Gillespie dribbles a basketball

Collin Gillespie (above, in 2019) had his college career cut short when he tore his MCL on Villanova's senior day. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Collin Gillespie’s origin story was one so good, it got repeated in nearly every broadcast, every feature written about him.

Unranked local prospect goes from unknown to unstoppable. 

The Archbishop Wood product who went from Division II offers the summer going into his senior year to a Big East scholarship six months later — then not only contributed for Villanova, not only won a national championship, but became a three-year starter for the Wildcats, a 1,000-point scorer, team captain, Bob Cousy Award finalist, respected by every opposing coach and player in the country for his combination of work ethic, toughness and on-court ability.

It was a fairytale, a story not unheard of in the high-major Division I ranks (Duncan Robinson, anyone?) but not often repeated, the kind that keeps every overlooked high school freshman with March Madness dreams working on their handle and shot late into the night.

Only in the last possible minute — just a few pages before the ‘happily ever after’ — that story went from Mother Goose to Stephen King. 

A torn MCL, suffered during Villanova’s 72-60 win against Creighton on Wednesday evening, ends’ Gillespie’s season. The injury looked bad when it happened, Jay Wright’s declaration that it was serious during a post-game interview an indication that the news would not be good, an MRI confirming the diagnosis the following morning. It might be the last time Gillespie will have appeared in a Villanova uniform, something he did 118 times over the last four years, starting 87 of those  contests.

It’s not what anybody — not his teammates, his friends and family, or even opposing players and fans — would have wanted for the 6-foot-2, 195-pound lead guard. As a senior, Gillespie was averaging 14.0 ppg, 4.6 apg and 3.3 rpg for the No. 10-ranked Wildcats, now 16-4 on the season and 11-3 in the Big East. Following in the footsteps of Ryan Arcidiacono and Jalen Brunson, he was the tone-setter and confidence-builder for his teammates, maintaining the same on-court mindset that’s driven the Wildcats’ success the last eight seasons.

Collin Gillespie passes the basketball

Collin Gillespie (above, in 2017) led Archbishop Wood to the PIAA 5A state title as a senior. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

"We are all devastated for Collin," Villanova head coach Jay Wright said in a press release. "He is the heart and soul of our program. We know we can't replace him. We all just want to step up and play so that we honor him.

"Collin is as mentally tough and resilient as any player we have had here,” Wright added. “I know he will get through this and make it a positive for his career."

Update (3/6/2021): Wright spoke with the media Friday morning about Gillespie's injury for the first time since the diagnosis.

“I spent a lot of time with him yesterday, a lot of time with his mom and dad," Wright said. "He’s an amazing kid, his spirits are incredible, considering what he’s facing, but he’s a really mentally tough kid. One of the concerns that I had was he’s so mentally tough, you want to monitor him and make sure he is okay, as good as he seems. He was at practice with our guys this morning, coaching them up, he’s been great.”

It’s true that on the grand scheme of things, an MCL tear is not a career-threatening injury. Plenty of amateur and professional athletes have undergone far worse knee and leg injuries and returned to their high level of play. Gillespie’s knee will heal, and depending on the grade and severity of the injury it could be anywhere from weeks to months. The press release did not specify whether Gillespie would need surgery for the tear, or whether they would attempt to rehab the knee without surgical intervention.

Update (3/6/2021): Wright said that Gillespie would undergo surgery in the near future to ensure a full recovery by the summer, and seemed optimistic that Gillespie would be fully healthy by the 2021-22 season, whether he's back at Villanova or playing professionally.

But the timing of it couldn’t be worse, with hopes of March Madness redemption just around the corner.

Villanova didn’t make it past the opening weekend of the 2019 tournament, Gillespie’s sophomore year, and COVID ended the 2020 tournament before it even began. The Wildcats weren’t going to be considered tournament favorites entering the postseason, but they were clearly good enough to make a Final Four run at full health. 

Combined with the Big East Tournament, which Villanova’s hoping to win for the fourth straight time (it wasn’t played in 2020), the postseason was set up to be one final showcase of Gillespie’s talents on a national stage.

“It was devastating,” junior forward Cole Swider said of watching his team captain go down. “He’s the emotional leader of our could see that we’re not used to playing without him. We’re going to miss Collin tremendously.”

What remains to be seen is what Gillespie will do next. The NCAA issued a blanket eligibility waiver for this season due to COVID, meaning he could return next season for a fifth year if he wanted to. The Wildcats are adding Angelo Brizzi, a four-star point guard out of Highland (Va.), to the roster, but Wright certainly wouldn’t turn down having his Big East Player of the Year candidate return to school.

Update (3/6/2021): In a conference call with the media Friday morning, Wright said that he had "purposefully not discussed" with Gillespie whether he would return for the extra year or not.

“We want to make sure he’s feeling good about his situation," Wright continued. "I think with it being an MCL, I think he’s in a good position where he’ll be healthy by the summer. So if he wanted to go, he could go, and if he wanted to stay, he could have a full year. If we were looking at ACL, it’s a different story. So we’re as happy as we can be that it’s MCL, for him, and we’re going to let him take as much time as he has to to make his decision.”

Collin Gillespie drives to the basket

Collin Gillespie (above, in 2019) was a star guard in his four seasons with the Wildcats. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

That option, without any knowledge of Gillespie’s line of thinking, seems unlikely. Gillespie has proven just about everything he could in his four years on the Main Line: he’s won a National Championship, shown he can not only play but star at the highest levels of college basketball, played for USA Basketball (winning a bronze medal in the 2019 Pan-American Games), earned First Team All-Big East honors. 

His 1,264 points put him 47th in ‘Nova history, his 361 assists 20th. Of course, those numbers don’t mention the fact that this season was 10 games shorter than any others, that he most likely lost at least another five or six games in this postseason, plus a handful due to a broken bone in his hand as a freshman. He could rise up those leaderboards if he came back, but there’s absolutely no way any of that matters.

Next up for him likely would be an attempt to be the next Villanova product to make it in the NBA, joining the likes of Arcidiacono, Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte Divincenzo, Josh Hart and Kyle Lowry, all of whom have proven they have staying power in the Association. 

It’ll take some time to determine if he’ll be ready to workout for the NBA Draft, which doesn’t have an announced date as the 2020-21 season will run more than a month later than normal due to the COVID pandemic. Not seen as a likely draft selection, Gillespie probably would have to go the Summer League/G League route, if not into a high-level league in Europe, but it’s not an impossible path. His recovery from this injury shouldn’t have a long-term impact on that outcome, but it’s certainly not ideal timing from a pro perspective, either. 

Collin Gillespie won 94 games in his Villanova career. The century mark was within his grasp, and 104 would have meant a few more trophies in the Wildcats’ case. Instead, he’ll be on the sideline, cheering his teammates on as they hope to achieve greatness without their leader. 

There’s no doubt that Gillespie will go down as one of the key players during this era of Villanova greatness, perhaps not quite up in the same lofty air as fellow point guards Arcidiacono and Brunson, but close enough to their company. But unlike those who got to end their college careers on a high note, Gillespie has to go out on the lowest of lows. 

It’s not fair. 

But the next chapter in his story is still waiting to be written.

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