5 questions facing Villanova after Collin Gillespie's injury


The Collin Gillespie Story deserved a far better ending. It really was a storybook type of journey up until Wednesday night.

Lightly recruited kid from nearby Archbishop Wood High School blossoms as a senior and receives a scholarship offer from the hometown college basketball powerhouse that had just won a national championship.

He plays a key role for Villanova off the bench as a freshman, helping the Wildcats to their second national title in three years. He comes into his own during his sophomore season, his first as a starter. Then as a junior, he emerges as the leader of a team without any seniors, winning another Big East regular season championship.

But then the pandemic wipes out the postseason of Gillespie's junior year. Fortunately, he had one year left at Villanova. One last chance to return to the Big East and NCAA Tournaments and try to win more championships.

Now he won't have that opportunity after tearing the MCL in his left knee during Wednesday's win over Creighton. He'll have surgery in the coming days and should be fully healthy by the summer, when he'll have a decision to make. More on that later.

For now, his teammates move forward without the player who is the 'heart and soul' of the program according to head coach Jay Wright.

Here are five questions Villanova must answer with one regular season game left before next week's Big East Tournament.

Who replaces Gillespie in the starting lineup?

Wright said on Friday morning that either Brandon Slater or Cole Swider will join Justin Moore, Caleb Daniels, Jermaine Samuels and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl in the starting lineup at Providence on Saturday.

Regardless of who starts, both Slater and Swider will get starter's minutes, meaning they'll play 25-30 minutes a game. Inserting Slater into the starting lineup would put Villanova's best defensive team on the floor. Starting Swider would give them more punch offensively.

Both guys will be challenged to take on bigger roles to close out their junior seasons.

Who becomes the primary ball-handler?

When Gillespie was on the floor, which was almost always unless it was the end of a blowout, he usually had the ball in his hands. Whether it was bringing the ball up and getting the Wildcats into their offense or operating out of the low post, he ran the show.

That responsibility will now rest on the shoulders of Moore, who is coming off his best game of the season on Wednesday. The sophomore scored a game-high 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting against Creighton to go along with five assists and five rebounds.

Moore has been inconsistent this season, but his coach believes he's capable of doing more in Gillespie's absence.

"I'm excited for him," Wright said. "We always feel like our guys have the ability to step up, they're just respectful of their roles. So when an opportunity like this comes up they're ready for it. I think Justin is that kind of guy. He plays off the ball a lot out of respect for Collin. And now he's going to be on the ball and I think he enjoys that."

Who steps up the scoring production?

The short answer is everybody. But keep an eye on Robinson-Earl, who leads Villanova in scoring with 15.4 points per game but has the skills to put up 20-25 points on a regular basis.

The Wildcats' offense figures to run through Robinson-Earl more often, whether he has the ball on the perimeter or in the low post. He might even play point guard from time to time, as he did against Creighton after Gillespie's injury.

Robinson-Earl is one of the most talented players in the country. He's capable of carrying a team through March. He's done his best work defensively but now he'll be tasked with more responsibility on the offensive end.

Is Villanova still a national championship contender?

Yes, but the road to a third national title in six years is significantly more difficult without Gillespie.

Prior to Wednesday night, Villanova was considered one of a handful of teams a rung below Gonzaga and Baylor that was still capable of winning a championship. They weren't necessarily one of the favorites, but it wasn't far-fetched to envision the Wildcats cutting down the nets a month from now in Indianapolis.

But now a lot of people are dismissing them as legitimate contenders. Those people are making a mistake.

Gillespie was Villanova's most important player and his absence creates a huge void both on and off the court. But there is still plenty of talent on the roster. And there is still a coach who knows how to steer a team through March and into April.

The championship DNA in the Villanova program typically comes to the surface this time of year.

What’s next for Gillespie?

He'll travel with Villanova to Providence for Saturday's game then he's expected to have surgery in the very near future. Wright expects Gillespie to be fully healthy by June.

He'll eventually decide whether to leave Villanova to begin his professional career or to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility the NCAA is offering student-athletes in light of the pandemic. That would enable him to return to college for a fifth season.

"With it being a MCL (injury), I think he's in a good position," Wright said. "He'll be healthy by the summer so if he wanted to go (pro) he can go, and if he wanted to stay he could have a full year. If we were looking at an ACL it would be a different story. We're going to let him take as much time as he has to make his decision, we want what's best for him."

It's good to have options and Gillespie will have two good ones — begin chasing his dream of playing professional basketball or return to Villanova to write an appropriate ending to one of the best careers in program history.

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