By Harry Allison

C ollin Gillespie, a 6-3 “super” senior, is playing on a fifth year of eligibility granted by the NCAA because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He played reliable minutes behind Jalen Brunson as a freshman in 2018 as Villanova won its third national championship.

Since then, he has been a full-time starter for the Wildcats for four consecutive seasons.

In three of those seasons, Gillespie has earned All Big-East honors.

In 2021, he was named Big East Player of the Year alongside NBA-bound teammate Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Seton Hall’s Sandro Mamukelashvili. This season, he earned Player of the Year honors all for himself while averaging 15.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists and shooting 40.9% from 3-point distance on 7.1 attempts per game.

“I just want to be remembered as a winner,” Gillespie said in February after scoring 33 points in a win over Providence.

Gillespie committed to Villanova from the Class of 2017 over offers from three other programs, Albany, Fairleigh Dickinson and Maine.

Gillespie starred at Archbishop Wood High School in Warminster. But even as a local kid who won a high school state championship and earned Philadelphia’s 2017 Player of the Year honors from multiple publications, he wasn’t typically the kind of guard Wright sought. Villanova has been a factory for producing NBA ready guards and wings with names like Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Josh Hart winning titles with the Wildcats since 2016.

Gillespie, who doesn’t possess typical NBA athleticism, doesn’t fit that profile. If he makes the NBA as a long-shot prospect, his shooting will be the reason why. Donte DiVincenzo may be the most apt comparison, emerging from his own three-stardom to become a first-round NBA draft pick. But DiVincenzo was an NBA-ready athlete. Gillespie will never be confused with the player on this highlight reel.

Gillespie earned his offer after catching the eye of then-Villanova assistant Ashley Howard at a Delaware prep basketball showcase in December 2016. But he wasn’t supposed to seize the starting backcourt role for four seasons. He was simply expected to back up Brunson before Wright landed his next NBA-ready prize. Just ask Wright.

“We had Jalen Brunson, and no one else would come,” Wright recently told Stadium’s Jeff Goodman. “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 to be a backup.”

Gillespie has fared pretty well for a “mediocre” guard. He’s done so despite his own personal adversity. Just prior to being named Big East Player of the Year for the first time, Gillespie saw his 2021 season come to a crashing end with a torn MCL sustained in a March 3 win over Creighton that clinched the Big East regular season for the Wildcats. He missed Villanova’s run to the Sweet 16 last year.

“He is the heart and soul of our program,” Wright said after Gillespie’s injury. “We know we can’t replace him. We all just want to step up and play so that we honor him.”

He came back this season better than ever while starting all 37 Villanova games. Now he’ll be expected to pick up the slack of another ill-timed injury, with fellow backcourt starter Justin Moore sustaining a torn Achilles in the final seconds of Saturday’s Elite Eight win over Houston.

Moore’s injury makes an already underdog Villanova an even longer shot to beat Kansas in Saturday’s semifinal with either Duke or North Carolina waiting on the other side. This, of course, is a role that Gillespie is wholly familiar with.

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