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Gillespie and Samuels' unexpected return presents good problem for Wright

04/14/2021, 12:30am EDT
By Josh Verlin

Collin Gillespie dribbles the basketball

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

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
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Jermaine Samuels had a feeling that he and Collin Gillespie were leaning the same way. The Villanova senior was debating whether to take the NCAA-allowed extra year of eligibility and play a fifth year in a Wildcats jersey or turn professional, knowing that his close friend and teammate was going through the same journey, though maybe for slightly different reasons.

“At first, it sounded like he was still on the fence,” Samuels said Tuesday during a Zoom press conference. “I knew I was in the same boat as him, but the way he was saying it, it was like he was still on the fence. And then once he said ‘yeah, I’m thinking about coming back,’ I was like ‘yeah, it’s all set.’”

Gillespie and Samuels made Villanova fans quite happy — and certainly caused a few groans amongst other Big East coaches — when they made near-simultaneous declarations Monday night that they’d be returning for one final go-around. Their returns give Villanova a pair of returning fifth-year players with more than 200 games of experience between them, not to mention over 2,000 points, 800 rebounds, 500 assists, and 102 team wins.

For Samuels, the decision was as simple as understanding where he was happiest and knowing that professional opportunities would still be there for him one year later.

“Just being surrounded by people who love you and you love back, who are genuinely there for your best interests,” he said. “Not to say that people aren’t at the next level, but that’s individual-based, and this place is really special for me. Having the opportunity to get better, be a better Villanova basketball player, be more of a staple of the Villanova basketball program, and other factors definitely weighed on me.”

Gillespie, on the other hand, didn’t have as easy a decision. He admitted he would have been gone for the professional waters if not for the torn MCL suffered March 3 that cost him the end of the season. But it wasn’t missing the Big East and NCAA Tournament that factored into Gillespie’s decision; it was purely about putting himself in the best position to start his professional career.

Turn pro, and he risked not being in shape for pre-draft workouts, a crucial step for someone still very much trying to prove his value to the Association. Return, and he had the whole offseason to fully recover, with the bonus of playing one more year under Jay Wright on a team with national championship aspirations.

“I also didn’t know anything about the NBA draft process, and when the NBA draft would be, when the workouts would be,” Gillespie said. “ I thought about it right away, even right after the injury I thought about it, but I would say right after my surgery and talking with my parents and Coach Wright, I knew that it was probably what was best for me.

“I feel like I was ready for it, but I wanted myself to have the best opportunity and chance to play at the next level, and me coming back and getting ready was really important.”

Gillespie and Samuels’ decision leaves Villanova head coach Wright with a problem — but boy, is it a good one. 

With the two of them taking advantage of the NCAA’s blanket waiver on eligibility for the 2020-21 season, Villanova is going to be perhaps even deeper and more experienced than the two-time National Champions have ever been in Wright’s two decades on the Main Line.

That means a more crowded Wildcats roster than Wright was expecting for next season, and he’ll have to portion his minutes carefully. But he’s certainly not going to complain about getting back two seniors who mean plenty to one of the top programs in the country.

“We were definitely not prepared for this...when they made the announcement that seniors could come back, we knew we were going to have some issues to deal with,” Wright said during a press conference Tuesday. “But if you look at it all, I think we came out of it pretty fortunate.”

That’s putting it lightly.

Gillespie, a three-year starter, was just named the Big East Co-Player of the Year and a Bob Cousy Award Finalist after averaging 14.0 ppg, 4.6 apg and 3.3 rpg in 20 games before his season ended early. The Wildcats’ on-court and emotional leader the last three years, he brings more than 3200 minutes of experience back to Villanova from 118 games (87 starts).

Jermaine Samuels drives to the basket

Jermaine Samuels (above, in 2019) is also opting to use the extra season of eligibility to return to Villanova. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Samuels, who arrived at Villanova with Gillespie as a freshman in the fall of 2017, has played in 115 games in his ‘Nova career, with 76 starts. As a senior, he set new career highs in scoring (12.0 ppg), rebounding (6.4/game), assists (2.5/game), shooting percentage (48.1%), 3-point percentage (37.1%), and free-throw percentage (82.8%).

Leading scorer Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is gone for the NBA after his spectacular sophomore season (15.7 ppg/8.5 rpg), but otherwise Villanova returns its next four leading scorers and seven of its top nine overall. That’s actually similar to this past offseason, when Villanova returned everybody but 2019-20’s leading scorer, Saddiq Bey

But there are two key differences: next year’s group is by far more experienced, with two fifth-year players, two fourth-year juniors (Caleb Daniels, Brandon Slater) and a three-year starter in third-year sophomore Justin Moore all in the rotation, with either fifth-year senior Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and third-year redshirt freshman Eric Dixon up front. Second, last year Villanova’s only new face was Daniels, a transfer from Tulane; this offseason, Wright brings in a highly-touted freshman class of point guard Angelo Brizzi (Highland School, Va.), shooting guard Jordan Longino (Germantown Academy, Pa.) and power forward Nnanna Njoku (Sanford School, Del.). And there’s also sophomore shooting guard Bryan Antoine, a five-star recruit who started to show flashes at the end of this season, as well as five-star forward Trey Patterson, a freshman who arrived on campus midway through the season and made a few brief appearances this winter.

It’s a packed roster for a coach who often likes leaving his group a scholarship or two shy of the 13-man limit, preferring to roll with a seven or eight-man rotation in the stretch run of the season. And Wright did admit that junior forward Cole Swider (6.1 ppg), who transferred to Syracuse earlier this month, left because of the numbers crunch on the wing, hoping for a bigger role with a different program. 

But ultimately, Gillespie and Samuels’ return instantly puts Villanova in the discussion for Preseason No. 1, and the Wildcats are going to be in the mix for Wright’s third national championship if all goes according to plan.

“I do think we’re going to have some depth for the first time in a while that we don’t have to develop,” Wright said. “I think it’s there, that’s going to be exciting. And we’re going to look forward to it, that’s a good challenge to have.”

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Every other school in the City 6 has seen some players make decisions on whether to stay or leave since the end of the 2020-21 season. Here’s how the transfer portal/extra year of graduation has affected the rest of the local Division I programs:

Drexel
Sophomore T.J. Bickerstaff is the Dragons’ only significant departure as of now; the 6-9 wing forward averaged 10.2 ppg and 5.2 rpg this past year, more than doubling his scoring total from a year ago. Also departing was 6-10 Lithuanian senior forward Tadas Kararinas, who played an average of 5.7 minutes in 65 career games, going scoreless in five appearances this past season.

La Salle

The Explorers have had five players transfer out this season, including backup point guard Ayinde Hikim (4.0 ppg), who left for UMass-Lowell midway through the year, as did forward Brandon Stone, who went to Robert Morris. Since the season ended, senior guard David Beatty (8.8 ppg) has transferred to North Carolina A&T, junior forward Jared Kimbrough (5.9 ppg/3.6 rpg) transferred to Hartford, and redshirt senior guard Scott Spencer (7.0 ppg) transferred to Tulane.The Explorers did add 6-9 forward Mamadou Doucoure, who started 29 games as a Rutgers freshman but came off the bench each of the last three years for the Scarlet Knights.

Penn
The Quakers lost two players to transfer, both seniors who were set to graduate and unable to play next year due to the school not allowing its graduate students to play for its athletics teams. Eddie Scott, a 6-6 wing, played in 53 career games (11 starts), averaging 4.8 ppg and 3.2 rpg as a junior. Jarrod Simmons, a 6-8 forward, averaged 1.9 ppg and 1.6 rpg in 70 career games (4 starts). Neither have committed to play anywhere next year.

Saint Joseph’s
The Hawks have done well in the transfer portal thus far. The only departure is redshirt junior wing Myles Douglas, who averaged 3.6 ppg as he fell out of favor in the St. Joe’s rotation over the course of the season; he’s yet to find a landing spot. They added a couple much-needed inside presences in 6-10 Vanderbilt transfer Ejike Obinna, who averaged 2.9 ppg and 3.0 rpg in 75 games (33 starts) with the Commodores; and 7-footer Charles Coleman, an East Carolina transfer who started 20 of 30 games as a freshman (3.0 ppg/3.0 rpg) but saw a reduced role in nine games as a sophomore (0.8 ppg/1.1 rpg).

Temple

Thus far, three Owls have hit the portal: grad student Brendan Barry, who averaged 6.9 ppg on 45.3% 3-point shooting after transferring in from Dartmouth; and seniors J.P. Moorman II (7.3 ppg/5.3 rpg this season) and De’Vondre Perry (7.2 ppg/4.5 rpg), both 6-7 wing forwards who had spent all four years at Temple, each playing in 105 contests. Moorman is the only one who’s committed to a school for next season; he’ll finish out at UC Riverside. Aaron McKie has also added 6-10 Wake Forest transfer Emmanuel Okpomo, who averaged just over a point and a rebound in 9.4 minutes in his only season of college hoops thus far and will have four years left to play.


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