By Harry Allison
It may be a little early to be discussing 2022 March Madness.
But Villanova is looking like a deep runner not that Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels are coming back.
Before Gillespie and Samuel’s announced they were returning, Seth Davis ranked Villanova No. 15 in his way-too-early men’s college basketball Top 25. With those guys back in the fold, however, the Wildcats are now looking more like a top 3 team, and legitimate national championship contenders yet again.
“We definitely had plenty of conversations about it,” Samuels said. “We were supposed to do it at the exact same time, but then I got distracted with a text message and I was about three minutes late.”
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“When Cole (Swider) decided to leave, it kind of gave me an inkling that those two might stay,” coach Jay Wright said. “Those two are very close. I was getting the feeling they were both going to go in the same direction, whichever way it was. And then the more they talk to you, the more you feel they’re coming back. Usually, when they stop talking to you, it usually means they’re going.”
“Honestly, it means everything to me,” Samuels said. “A lot of people don’t know, but (I was) looking up to Collin our freshman year because he was playing and I really wasn’t, so I learned a lot of things from him. We’ve both been through struggles. He’s helped me out. I’ve helped him out. We get a chance to regroup, come back and be with someone who means so much to you. It’s a blessing. Not everyone can do that.”
Gillespie averaged 14.4 points and 4.7 assists last season, but missed Villanova’s final five games after tearing a medial collateral ligament in his left knee on Senior Night against Creighton. He says recovery has gone well and he’s progressing daily. He’s been undergoing physical therapy on campus while finishing up classes for this semester.
“This is home for me,” Gillespie said. “I’ve never left the city of Philadelphia, really, so this is where I’m comfortable.”
Samuels, who averaged 12.0 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists last season while shooting a career-high 37.1 percent from 3-point range, played the entire year with a severely sprained finger. The injury is still affecting Samuels, Wright said, which would’ve hurt him in the NBA Draft evaluation process. However, his reasoning for returning to Villanova for a fifth season is more sentimental than anything else. He simply wants to cement his legacy in a Wildcats uniform.
“Just being surrounded by people who love you and you love back — who are genuinely there for your best interests,” Samuels said. “Not to say that people aren’t at the next level, but that’s more individual-based. This place is really special to me, and having another opportunity to get better, becoming a better Villanova basketball player, becoming even more of a staple within the program, things like that and other factors definitely weighed on me.”
“You want to go into the season this way, with experienced guys, young guys,” Wright said. “One of the things we try not to do is have a lot of pressure on our young guys — have our young guys playing, but have them out there with veteran players. If you remember, even Jalen Brunson as a freshman was playing with a lot of veteran guys.”
“This is a good position for us, and then once you get into the season you manage it,” Wright said. “But I like where we are right now.”