PHILADELPHIA — Jay Wright never doubted the impact that Collin Gillespie could have at Villanova.
Nevermind the fact that Gillespie was an unheralded, three-star recruit from the Philly suburbs that was brought in to be the guy that replaced Ryan Arcidiacono and Jalen Brunson, two current NBA players with a total of three national title rings between them. Nevermind the fact that people on the outside of the program doubted whether or not this kid would ever be good enough for Villanova to play at the level they expected to play at when he committed.
Wright knew what he had from the moment that Gillespie started practicing with the team.
“Watching him and Jalen Brunson go at it every day,” Wright said. “I can’t remember specific incidences, but I know in my mind, that if we had to give Jalen a rest or move Jalen off of the ball, I was always fine with him, right from the start.
“You see it in practice. When [a freshman] goes at a veteran player, and that veteran player has some trouble, you’re like, ‘OK, this guy’s got it.’”
That “it” shined through when it mattered the most on Saturday afternoon.
Jermaine Samuels finished with 15 points, including a three with less than 20 seconds left on the clock, as No. 18 Villanova became the fifth team this season to knock off the No. 1 team in the country with a 56-55 upset win over Kansas.
Gillespie finished with 12 points on just 5-for-15 shooting for the Wildcats, but he was the guy that made two of the biggest plays of the game down the stretch. It was his assist that led to Samuels’ game-winning three. One possession earlier, it was Gillespie that picked Devon Dotson’s pocket and finished a layup to cut a 55-51 Kansas lead to just two points.
Gillespie and Samuels combined to score the final 19 points for the Wildcats, who landed a critical home win. Villanova did not enter this great with an overwhelming resume, and this is precisely the kind of win that helps solidify seeding come Selection Sunday.
Kansas is the fifth team in college basketball to be ranked No. 1 this season. Michigan State opened the year as No. 1 in the AP Poll, but they dropped after losing to Kentucky in the Champions Classic. The Wildcats were No. 1 until they lost at home to Evansville. That’s when Duke climbed into the No. 1 spot, but that only lasted for two weeks before the Blue Devils lost at home to Stephen F. Austin. Louisville was next, but the Cardinals lost to Texas Tech at the Jimmy V Classic after their first week ranked No. 1.
This does not count Ohio State, who was No. 2 in the country and on track to be the top-ranked team when they lost to Minnesota late last Sunday night.
Gonzaga should, presumably, find themselves at No. 1 come Monday morning. It is the first time in college basketball history that five different No. 1 teams have lost before January.
Saddiq Bey added seven points, seven assists and five boards and forced Dotson into a miss at the buzzer.
Dotson did not have a great final minute. In addition to the turnover that led to Gillispie’s layup, he missed the front end of a one-and-one with the Jayhawks down 56-55 and 15 seconds left on the clock. He also missed a shot that would have tied the game at the buzzer. He finished with 15 points, seven boards and four assists.
“The reason why No. 1 lost today is that they played a team that’s really good in their building and they made plays down the stretch,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said.
“I don’t even know if there is a No. 1.”
“I just think it’s one of those years,” Wright added. “Sometimes there’s a dominant team, [but] I think a lot of it depends on who decides to come back. Remember the year Florida won it and they all came back? Everyone knew right for the beginning [they were No. 1]. If someone does that, you’re going to have a dominant team.”
Villanova lost Eric Paschall and Phil Booth this offseason, but they did bring back a couple of key veteran pieces. And it was those veterans, Gillespie and Samuels, that made the plays, and it should not come as a surprise to anyone that this point that that is the way that a Villanova season is playing out.
It is not secret that Jay Wright’s goal is to get old and stay old. There is a reason why he has not targeted one-and-done freshmen at the same rate as some of the other elite programs around the country. There is a certain level of expectation that comes when playing in the Villanova program, and if you make mistakes, if you’re not fully immersed and fluent in their concepts, then there is no leash. Put another way, freshmen are not going to be allowed to play themselves into being comfortable during games. Bryan Antoine is learning that the hard way right now.
The good news, at least for Villanova fans, is that this means that the veterans that are in the program are going to be able to carry the water.
“The guys that have played in this program, as they get older, they know how to make plays,” Wright said. “They know what it takes at the end of a game, they’ve been in a lot of big games. You can see some of the young guys at the end struggle a little bit, but that’s why we try to keep expereinced players and that’s why these two,” pointing to Gillespie and Samuels, “are really important to this team.”