One Last Ride: Gillespie Returns For Final Season


Courtesy of Maggie Mengel/Villanovan Photography

Gillespie drives against Butler in 2019.

Colin Beazley, Co-Sports Editor

The first thing you learn interviewing Collin Gillespie is that it’s not fun interviewing Collin Gillespie.

Make no mistake about it, this is no knock on Collin. In fact, this makes him the quintessential Villanova player. I asked Collin 20 questions over the span of 13 minutes, and he gave the right answer, the Villanova basketball answer, every time. Every. Single. Time. Every quote went back to a tenet of Jay Wright’s teaching, a pillar of Villanova culture, from the “humble and hungry” edict to direct references of playing Villanova basketball all game every game.

There were no mistakes whatsoever. Every question I gave him he treated it as he would treat a fastbreak layup: nothing special, nothing fancy, just lay it up, right or left hand, through the hoop, turn around and run back on defense.

Perfect fundamentals, whether facing the media or Marquette. 

Throughout Gillespie’s time at Villanova, he has embodied Villanova basketball better than anyone save maybe his coach, and that’s what made the interview so predictable, because it was Villanova basketball. Jay Wright provides the personality and charm for his team, while his players do the dirty work. While other programs chase five stars and seek to put the best possible players on the court, Wright looks for players that will fit his well-established Villanova culture, and no one has fit that culture better than Gillespie, because Gillespie has become the culture. Wright’s teams are well-known as being better than the sum of their parts, as players share the ball, driving to the paint and kicking out to a usually wide open teammate. His players dive for every loose ball, regardless of the score, and ignore their own egos for the sake of the whole, often willing to sit out a year or two to learn the system and their fit in it. Save for a few special players, Villanova basketball is usually devoid of flash, but the Wildcats are more fundamentally sound than anyone they step on the court with. Gillespie excels at the fundamentals.

During Gillespie’s time at Villanova, Wright has built the former three-star recruit Gillespie into one of the best collegiate players in the nation, Wright’s perfect player. When Gillespie is on the court, Wright hardly has to coach, as Gillespie knows when to push the pace, when to slow the tempo, what play to run and how to break down the opposing defense. Wright established the Villanova culture and Gillespie has thrived in it so much that he has become it, and it shows on the court and on Zoom.

“Yeah, he’s taught me a lot,” Gillespie said of Wright. “Not just on the floor, but off the floor as well, how to become a man, how to approach each day. On the floor, I feel like I’ve learned a lot from him… Coach Wright has been very influential in my career so far, and I look forward to learning a lot more from this year as well.”

Every answer Gillespie gives is calm and calculated, and it parallels a truth shown on the basketball court: ever since his sophomore year, Gillespie has been in control. His senior year of high school at nearby Archbishop Wood was one of the greatest seasons in Philadelphia basketball history, as Gillespie entered the season as a lightly regarded Division-II-at-best recruit and exited a Villanova commit, the PIAA 5A Player of the Year and a Maxpreps All-American Honorable Mention after leading his squad to the state championship. In his freshman year, he came off the bench for much of the year but was a key contributor to the program’s third national championship, and when the team’s two top-scoring guards Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo left for the NBA Draft, Gillespie seized the opportunity with both hands. Gillespie started all 35 games for the Wildcats in 2018-2019, averaging nearly 11 points per game to lead the ‘Cats to both the Big East regular season and tournament championships.

Throughout the last three years, nearly everything has gone to plan for Gillespie. He’s started every game he’s played in and has picked up a title so easily that it’s seemingly his official position with the Wildcats: he’s not a point guard, but a floor general. Gillespie is the leader on the court and in the locker room, the unquestioned top dog. When in blue, black or white, Gillespie is invincible. Except for when he wasn’t.

March 3, 2021 was a day circled on the calendar for the Wildcats, as a Senior Day matchup with Creighton beckoned. The game was more than just a celebration for seniors Gillespie, Jermaine Samuels, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Kevin Hoehn, but it brought both an opportunity for revenge against a team that handed the Wildcats their worst loss of the season, as well as a chance to lock up the Big East regular season crown. All was going to plan, as the Wildcats led by 12 just 12 minutes into the game, but a hush fell over the families in attendance when Gillespie got tangled up with Creighton’s Damien Jefferson and went down holding his knee. Gillespie had torn his MCL and was forced to miss the remainder of the season, including the team’s NCAA Tournament run.

“Immediately, I was annoyed,” Gillespie said. “I was frustrated, a lot of emotion. After that, I kinda just said, I can’t feel sorry for myself. Things happen. This is life. I got to keep a great attitude, help my teammates in whatever way that I can.”

“It was tough, watching those guys compete [in the postseason] and not being able to be out there and help them in any way that I could. It was really tough, not being able to play in the NCAA tournament [and the] Big East tournament the last two years,” Gillespie said. “I feel like we had two really good teams that had the chance to be successful. This year we had a lot of older guys come back, so I’m really looking forward to just being able to compete with these guys again.” 

The Senior Night game was meant to be Gillespie’s last hurrah, one last time playing in the Finn, a perfect finale to a storied Villanova career. Yet, in one moment, his final act went irreversibly off script. However, the pandemic offered a second chance at that perfect ending, and Gillespie took advantage of an extra year of eligibility offered to all NCAA athletes affected by the pandemic to return for a fifth season.

Gillespie said once he knew he had the extra year “to fall back on,” his decision to return to the Wildcats was an easy one. He announced his decision on Twitter less than three weeks after the Sweet 16 loss to Baylor, together at the same time as his teammate and close friend Jermaine Samuels.

“It was the injury and just wanting to get healthy here at Villanova,” Gillespie said of his decision to return. “It’s been my home for the last four years. Part of it was that, and then just being around people that cared about me, wanting to see me get better, see me get healthy, and then I felt like this was the place where I could get healthy and continue to grow as a person and as a player on the court.”

And get healthy he has. Gillespie spent the summer rehabbing his knee, and when he was able to return to basketball related activities he had to play with a massive metal knee brace. He played in the Blue-White scrimmage with the brace, but said it wasn’t something he’ll need to use during the season.

“I feel good right now,” Gillespie said. “[I] still get treatment on it almost every day, just to try and stay ahead of it. There’s some good days and there’s days where it’ll swell up a little bit, but I feel really good right now. I’m ready to go.”

Gillespie enters the season in a familiar position, as the key to any future Wildcat successes and as the tone-setter for the team itself. The team takes its lead from Gillespie; no one has been better at maintaining that Villanova culture than Gillespie, and it’s apparent in his answers. Gillespie was named as an AP Preseason All-American earlier this month, but his reaction was typically Villanovan.

“It’s a great honor, but [it’s] something that I really don’t look at too much,” Gillespie said. “I’m not really focused on that stuff, the individual stuff. From me, it’s just being a great leader, being a great teammate, and just trying to help the team in any way that I can, just trying to be the best Villanova team we can by the end. Whatever happens with that will come, but I don’t really think about it too much. It’s something that I’m not really worried about.”

When asked about the “team stuff,” and how his team earned a #4 ranking in the Preseason AP Poll, Gillespie’s answer was much of the same.

“We don’t really look at rankings,” Gillespie said. “We always just say have a growth mindset throughout the year because there is so many ups and downs and just focus on becoming the best team we can by the end. I know it’s the same thing always, but that’s really what it is. We never talk about those things.”

However, the most telling moment of the interview was when I asked him what game he was most looking forward to this season. The schedule is filled with opportunities for revenge and games with intrigue, from the return of local rivalries in the Big 5 to a grudge match against reigning national champion Baylor, the team that knocked the Wildcats out last year, or even an early season matchup with second ranked UCLA, but Gillespie wouldn’t bite.

“I have to say Mount St. Mary’s because it’s our next game and that’s the most important game. We have a lot of great games this year … but I have to say Mount St. Mary’s, it’s our next game. I’m just really excited to be playing again.”

Another right answer. No headline, no lead in, just the simplest answer and the one Villanova basketball demands he give. It may not be the flashiest, but it’s exactly the answer he should give, so it’s the one he used.

My final question was the most open-ended one I gave him, as I asked what he wanted anyone reading this piece to expect going into the season, and the quintessential Villanova player gave the quintessential Villanova answer.

“We’re hungry. We’re hungry and humble,” Gillespie said. “We’re looking forward to just coming out every night and playing Villanova basketball, we’re gonna play hard on every single possession. We’re going to play Villanova basketball for 40 minutes.”

The interview was nothing special. 

With Gillespie at the helm, this season sure will be.