Jay Wright recalls the conversation vividly. It transpired in the hotel lobby of the Hilton during the 2019 Final Four in Minneapolis, just weeks after a second-round blowout loss at the hands of Purdue.
This was a program that had cut down the nets two of the previous three years, but a No. 6 seed and a first-weekend exit didn’t meet Villanova standards.
Collin Gillespie’s sophomore campaign had just concluded, his first as the Wildcats’ starting point guard. He replaced Jalen Brunson, who replaced Ryan Arcidiacono, and while Gillespie helped lead the Wildcats to another Big East regular-season title, this was a down year for a program that had won national titles in 2016 and 2018.
“I’m just not sure he can be the point guard that can lead us to another one,” Wright said to me at the time.
“I just don’t know.”
That sentence wasn’t much of a surprise coming out of Wright’s mouth back then, but Wright can only laugh when recalling it.
“I’m the worst evaluator,” Wright laughs now.
As a freshman, Gillespie was slated to come in and redshirt, basically serving as a practice player and a complete afterthought. This was a kid who wasn’t heavily recruited coming out of Archbishop Wood in Philadelphia. In fact, early on in his high school career there was a thought he’d go the football route, which wasn’t much of a surprise since his father, Jim, was an assistant football coach at Archbishop Wood.
But Gillespie was a backup quarterback, a year younger than eventual Temple signal-caller Anthony Russo, and decided to quit the sport after his sophomore season.
“He knew he was never going to beat Russo out,” Jim Gillespie said. “So he gave up football. I was disappointed at the time, but he’s always made the right decisions — and that was one of them.”
Gillespie then devoted all his time to the hardwood, helping lead an Archbishop Wood program that had virtually no history to a state title his senior season. But he suffered a knee injury that kept him out for most of an all-important AAU campaign after his junior year, and Archbishop Wood head coach John Mosco came up empty trying to persuade anyone to take him at the D-I level.
FDU passed. Delaware had no interest. Drexel didn’t want him. Neither did William & Mary or Penn State.
“He doesn’t look the part,” Mosco said. “But he’s got all the intangibles.”
There was heavy interest from Division II Holy Family and Philadelphia University, but Gillespie was dead set on betting on himself. Maine jumped in, along with Albany and Rider.
But Gillespie waited.
Finally, then-Villanova assistant Ashley Howard saw Gillespie, then a senior, at the Slam Dunk to the Beach event in Delaware against a Roselle Catholic team that boasted Naz Reid (LSU) and Nate Pierre-Louis (Temple). After a big-time performance, there was talk of an impending Nova scholarship offer.
Mosco called the Gillespie family together in a room off the lobby at the hotel in Delaware and delivered the earth-shattering news to Collin when he walked down from his room.
“We couldn’t believe it,” Jim said of he and his wife hearing the news. “Villanova was coming off a national championship.”
But his son’s reaction was slightly different.
There was no celebration, no alteration in his facial expression, no texting his buddies. He just turned around and headed back upstairs to his hotel room with the ultimate poker face.
“OK, thanks,” Gillespie said. “I’ve got to go and get ready for the next game.”
Gillespie played the next game, and committed to Wright and the Wildcats hours later. It was a pledge that received no fanfare among the fan base or the recruiting experts.
“We had Jalen Brunson and no one else would come,” Wright said. “We couldn’t get a big-time guard, so then you’re going to get a mediocre guard. We went for a guy that we thought wouldn’t play and next year we’ll get a big-time guard when Jalen leaves. The whole plan was for him [Gillespie] to be a backup.”
“You might play by the time you’re a junior or senior,” Wright told Gillespie matter-of-factly.
But despite getting dominated by Brunson in preseason workouts and practices, Gillespie never showed any frustration.
“I’d take advantage of him every day, and even tell him what’s going to happen,” Brunson recalled. “But he kept coming back, kept guarding me and didn’t ever want to switch off me. He knew that was the best way for him to get better.”
“We couldn’t redshirt him,” Wright added.
Gillespie wound up being a key reserve as a freshman, the fourth perimeter player behind a pair of NBA guards in Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo, as well as Phil Booth. He played 16 minutes in the national title game victory over Michigan, but was fairly anonymous with a stat line that read: 4 points, 0-0 FG, 4-4 FT, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal.
Next season, Gillespie moved into the starting lineup, but it was time for seniors Booth and Eric Paschall to get their turn as the leaders. Gillespie played nearly 30 minutes a game, averaging 10.9 points and 2.8 assists while shooting 38 percent from three. But the Wildcats earned a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tourney and wound up losing by 26 points to Purdue.
As a junior, it was time for Gillespie and fellow classmate Jermaine Samuels to step up. There is a clear process at Villanova when it comes to player roles, and now it was their turn to lead. Gillespie had a breakout tourney in Myrtle Beach early that season, going toe-to-toe with Baylor’s backcourt of Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler and MaCio Teague and finishing with 27 points and six assists in a loss to the Bears in the championship game.
Gillespie was a spectator a year ago in the crowd when Villanova lost to Baylor in the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis. He had suffered a torn MCL in his left knee on March 3 in the first half of a win over Creighton that clinched the Big East regular-season title. Shortly after watching his teammates come up shy against the eventual national champs, Gillespie had a decision to make. The NCAA granted seniors another year of eligibility due to the pandemic.
Gillespie and Samuels both decided to return for a fifth year on the Main Line.
“I didn’t think about the NBA once,” Gillespie said. “I was trying to get as healthy as I possibly could.”
Gillespie has had a career year this season, averaging 16.6 points while shooting a sizzling 43 percent from beyond the arc and 92 percent from the line. Villanova has managed to slide under the radar a bit, but Gillespie still hopes to finish his college career in a similar fashion to how it began by cutting down the nets.
“I just want to be remembered as a winner,” he said shortly after dropping a career-high 33 points in a win against Providence. “I’ve just tried to emulate guys like Arch and Jalen. That’s how I want to be.”
Gillespie has evolved into arguably the best point guard in college basketball. No, he’s not an exceptional athlete and he doesn’t put up eye-popping numbers. But he’s unflappable, rarely showing any emotion after he buries a game-winner or when opposing student sections heckle him by yelling the name of his ex-girlfriend.
In fact, he smiles and views it as a compliment when being referred to as a “robot” on the court. His father recently walked down to the court with Gillespie’s 2-year-old niece, Vienna, prior to a game, and attempted unsuccessfully to get his son’s attention.
“He wouldn’t even look at me,” Jim Gillespie said.
“I’m in a zone,” Collin told his dad after the game. “I’m focused.”
Gillespie is averaging 15.2 points, 4.0 assists and is shooting nearly 40 percent from three since Wright’s conversation with me in Minneapolis, and the team is 61-18 in the past three seasons when Gillespie’s been on the court.
“He’s so much more confident now,” Brunson observed. “Coach gave him the keys and the freedom, and Collin just makes the right decision most of the time.”
“There are a lot of great guards — in terms of what we want a Villanova guard to be — I wouldn’t trade him for any guard in the country,” Wright said.