SAN ANTONIO — In the final March of Collin Gillespie’s remarkable—and remarkably long—college basketball career, his father saw someone fall to the floor during a game at Finneran Pavilion. After a few seconds, Jim Gillespie recognized the Villanova player—his son.
“It might be an ankle,” guessed his wife, Therese. But when Collin tried to rise and couldn’t put any weight on his left leg, Jim knew “it had to be worse.”
This was March 3, 2021, as the regular season was coming to a close. Only close friends and family members sat scattered in the stands. At halftime, the Villanova team doctor found the Gillespie family and laid out both sides of his initial evaluation. The injury was significant, a torn MCL, and would require surgery. But the ACL in that knee appeared still intact, which, in theory, meant a shorter rehabilitation.
The “good” news did little to salve the family’s devastation. Collin had already played his Senior Day inside an empty gym, absent the usual celebration; he had, to that point, suffered no major injuries beyond what his father describes as “seven or eight broken noses and a broken hand.” He had fought his way to Villanova in the first place, played a small but not insignificant role on a national title team, had become a pillar and started to dream about playing in the NBA. His future was in flux. Thoughts raced through Jim’s mind, and he kept the worst one to himself.
God, this could be the end of his career.
Collin underwent surgery to repair the ligament, then watched the rest of March Madness from the colonial-style house where he grew up in Philadelphia. He was immobilized, lost in a fog of anesthesia and unable to do what he does best, which is will, guide and shoot Villanova basketball to wins. He couldn’t shower for days, while his mother, an X-ray technician at a local hospital, changed bandages and washed wounds. He bought two sets of crutches, one for the upstairs and one for the downstairs, and to get from one to the other, he slid gingerly down steps. As the days dragged by, he spent more and more time in his room, watching basketball, his father popping in to try to cheer him up.
“Fortunately,” Jim says, “it wasn’t his last March.”
The twist! Because of the global pandemic, an NCAA exemption, the injury itself and how well he recovered, Collin returned for the 2021–22 season. It marked his fifth in college basketball. In some ways, it feels like his 45th. Villanova is an improbable college hoops power, but in its long and illustrious history, there’s no easy comparison to Gillespie and his part-of-the-furniture career. He has played in the most games, developing from a fringe prospect into a program’s soul. He isn’t flashy, can be feisty, won’t overwhelm opponents with athleticism, size or speed.
Collin Gillespie is just … good. Polished. Fast. Complete. Can shoot from anywhere. Willing to do whatever must be done. Basically everything that’s on display this March, when almost exactly a year after his surgery—367 days, to be exact—he vaulted the Wildcats over Creighton, the same opponent from the injury, to win this Big East tournament.
As Villanova rolled over Michigan, 63–55, at the AT&T Center on Thursday night, Gillespie deepened his place in a distinct group, one that isn’t part of Villanova lore so much as the reason the lore exists. They are the Wildcats who stay forever, or seem to, the years and games and moments adding up to something more. Think Randy Foye, Scottie Reynolds, Ryan Arcidiacono or Jalen Brunson, all cornerstones who cemented a small school as a legitimate power. It’s not coincidental that they’re guards, that they developed, that they command.
Back in the NCAA tournament—this time, for real, his final March—Gillespie is so focused he comes across as robotic, a shooting-savant cyborg. It falls to his coach, Jay Wright, to explain the depth of what his guard never will: the summer-long rehabilitation process, the doubts faced and overcome, an ankle injury that cast this season into question and all the whipsawing emotions. But as Gillespie held the Big East tournament trophy above his head a few weeks back, his guard went down, and he sounded human, all but confirming his coach’s description of the past year in one sentence. “This is what I came back for,” Gillespie said.
He was right, at that moment, and he was wrong. That was what he came back for. But only part of it.
The other part is ongoing, and Thursday’s never-really-in-doubt victory marked but one more step toward the ultimate destination. Gillespie played 39 minutes against Michigan. He missed a lot of shots. He finished with 12 points. But he also snagged six rebounds, recorded two assists and one steal, and, when it mattered, his shots went down.
One three-pointer helped push the Wildcats to an 18—11 advantage early. But the Wolverines clawed back, taking a lead of their own just before the under-four TV timeout. It won’t show up in the box score, but as his teammates sulked toward the huddle, Gillespie motioned with his hands for everyone to calm down. Two minutes later, the ball ricocheted around the court, as Gillespie slid out to the left wing. A teammate grabbed an offensive rebound and kicked the ball out, where a series of Wildcats swung it from the right corner to Gillespie’s waiting hands. He leapt, but slightly right and instantly, creating the space necessary to launch another triple. It also dropped through.
In the second half, the Wolverines mostly trailed, and the Wildcats expanded their lead. But with only a few minutes remaining, Michigan cut the deficit to four points. Samuels laid in a driving layup and, on Villanova’s next offensive possession, guess who drained another three? Samuels set the screen that opened just enough space for the attempt, which Gillespie took off-balance to secure an Elite Eight bid.
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But when the final buzzer sounded, while teammates celebrated briefly on the court, Gillespie never even smiled. His face might still be blank.
In the 206 minutes he has played in the NCAA tournament, Gillespie has six turnovers. Six! He also appeared to aggravate a knee injury late in the second half. But after everything, so deep into his second “senior” season, it’s hard to imagine he won’t be playing Saturday. He is Collin Gillespie, the altar boy assassin, after all.
As far as super seniors go, Gillespie will never fit the stereotype. While recovering, he spoke with doctors, coaches and NBA evaluators, anyone who might help inform whether he should return. He didn’t want to participate in the NBA combine on a not-yet-recovered knee. Ultimately, his father says, Collin alone would choose. His parents trusted him, because, Jim says, “he always makes the right decision,” which is not something too many parents say about their children.
About those “right” decisions. Gillespie loved football, a basic requirement in a family of Eagles fans. His father, a longtime lieutenant in the Philadelphia Police Department, even played for a team of local officers, the Philly Blue Flame. But Collin gave up a promising career at Archbishop Wood High School, shelving his quarterback ambitions to focus full time on hoops, figuring it might give him a better chance to play Division I.
Archbishop Wood had little history in basketball. Fairleigh Dickinson said no when Gillespie’s coach called. Penn State passed, as would Drexel, Delaware and William & Mary. Gillespie waited, another wise decision, telling interested Division II programs (Holy Family, Philadelphia, Maine) he needed time. Finally, fatefully, a Villanova assistant, Ashley Howard, happened to see what so many others had missed. Kid could play, and, more importantly, he fit into the soul of a program that had suffered through a string of first-week NCAA tournament exits to win a national title the previous season (2016). The Gillespie family watched that buzzer-beater triumph from their living room, never expecting their youngest would join that team. (Funny enough, but Collin rooted for North Carolina, the team Villanova toppled as time expired.)
With Brunson returning, “no one else would come,” Wright says. Villanova offered Gillespie expecting he would be a backup and perhaps develop into a player worthy of regular minutes in the rotation. “You might play by the time you’re a junior or senior,” Wright told him. The coach did not know Gillespie then. Same as now, really: hardheaded, driven beyond what might be considered healthy, obsessed with the only thing he wanted—to win.
When Collin took up golf, he played every minute he wasn’t practicing, until he could score in the high 70s. He didn’t consider “seven or eight” broken noses to be significant; rather, he viewed them as part of the price he paid. Been that way forever. When they were kids, Collin and his brother, James, fought so often that their father purchased boxing gloves and sent them to the back patio whenever they started jawing. He gave them only one rule: no head shots. But whenever Collin, younger by a year, started losing, he went straight for his brother’s head. “It didn’t matter what my rules were,” Jim says. “It’s, My brother is bigger and stronger, but I’m going to win to win the fight.”
Wright planned to redshirt Gillespie but changed his mind after only a few weeks. The kid stood up to Brunson, who became a mentor and passed down the informal art that is the Villanova way. Away from the court, Brunson found Gillespie quiet; on it, Gillespie oozed toughness, especially the mental variety. “He embraced all of it,” Brunson tells Sports Illustrated in a phone interview. “Stone-cold killer, that dude. No facial expressions. Nothing bothers him.” Asked whether Gillespie seemed a million miles from an NBA career at that point, Brunson disagrees. “I knew from Day 1,” he says. “All makeup.”
That’s not to say Gillespie didn’t need to develop. He did. At the Final Four in 2018, held in San Antonio, he sat with the walk-ons and role players in the far corner of Villanova’s locker room. Still, he played 16 minutes in the title game, which Villanova again won. After what seemed like hours of celebrating at the arena, the exhausted Wildcats thought they were done with their obligations. They were not. They had to ride a boat down a river—and what a ride it was. Wright describes music blasting, fans hanging from trees, or leaning out of buildings, everyone screaming and the adults drinking and reveling in a second title in three seasons.
That night, Wright wondered, fairly, if he would find another leader, someone as important to his program as Brunson and Mikal Bridges. Brunson says he never doubted. “I knew,” he says, “that Collin would pass the torch to the next guy.”
Becoming the guy took a while. After his sophomore season, Gillespie bolstered his overall skill set “about 10 times over,” his father says. At one tournament in Myrtle Beach early into his junior year, he outplayed future NBA guards from Baylor. But the Wildcats campaign ended with a 26-point blowout loss against Purdue in the NCAA tournament. His senior season, the first one, vanished on the MSG parquet. Jim always figured his son would return to Villanova. Over all of those 45 seasons, the family watched so many other players transfer, from all sorts of programs. Jacket chasers, they called them, meaning they jumped from team to team, trying to “win a jacket.”
Brunson watched his former road roommate closely this season, whenever he wasn’t playing for the Mavericks. He saw a super senior who embodied the Villanova way, just as Brunson taught him. Gillespie could still score, but his overall game had expanded. He led the Wildcats in assists, ranked fourth in rebounds, made 43.1% of his attempts from three-point range and averaged 16 points on a team that shared the ball, with six players averaging 8.7 points or more. He won the Big East player of the year award, for the second time, in a second “senior” season; only this time, he didn’t share the hardware. Jim was more impressed by another honor. His son also won the conference’s award for top scholar-athlete. “I never finished college,” Jim says, “and my wife never went. We’re blue-collar people, and we always told them, Go further. He has.”
In the Big East championship game, Gillespie scored 10 points over the final five minutes to seal the title. His father’s mind began to drift back to the injury and everything before it. In the first round of the NCAAs, his son addressed teammates after Villanova fell behind. “Stay the course,” he told them, and Jim thought, Didn’t Collin embody his own advice?
Sure did. A second-round matchup against Ohio State marked Gillespie’s 153rd game played in a Villanova uniform. He staked the Wildcats to an early lead, scored 10 points in one roughly two-minute stretch, dished an assist, grabbed a steal and never cracked so much as a smile. “If he’s in [that] mood, everybody is in the same type of groove,” says teammate Jermaine Samuels. “That’s the beauty of our team.”
Hence another trip to San Antonio, the same city and same arena from the title season. Everything is different now—different round, different stars, leaders, season. And nothing’s different, too. Gillespie is Brunson, not exactly and exactly so. In their recent conversations, Brunson says he never used the word championship, nor did Gillespie. “When you’ve been there forever, that means you’re doing something right,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard says. “This is a young man who has bought into the culture.” It’s more than that, though. Players like Gillespie are the culture.
When asked about the last trip here compared to this one, Gillespie did not, well, want to remember the Alamo. He said the two tournaments “didn’t really correlate,” and yet, they kind of do. What makes Villanova renowned Villanova is that focus and those traditions and how they’re passed from one generation of Wildcats to the next. What makes Gillespie stone-cold-killer Gillespie is how he not only accepted the challenge of that leadership position but embraced it, built on it, made it his. The uncertainty is over. The NBA—and whether he can excel there—can wait. All Gillespie wants the next two weeks is the same thing he has always wanted: to win.
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