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Believe it or not, Collin Gillespie is still at Villanova, hungrier than ever | Mike Jensen

Knee surgery that kept Gillespie out of the NCAA Tournament also means he’s back for a fifth season.

Collin Gillespie was a freshman on Villanova's 2018 national title team. He has played in 118 college games.
Collin Gillespie was a freshman on Villanova's 2018 national title team. He has played in 118 college games.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

NEW YORK — As a younger guy, Collin Gillespie seemed like an older soul, at least in basketball terms. Now officially an old guy, since 22 is practically elderly in college basketball terms, Gillespie elicits groans of respect from opposing Big East coaches as he prepares for his fifth season of college hoops.

“I feel like Gillespie was at my wedding,” said Providence coach Ed Cooley on Tuesday at Big East Media day at Madison Square Garden.

“He could do the scouting reports by now,” said Xavier coach Travis Steele.

Big East coaches voted Gillespie as their preseason choice for player of the year, figuring that his recovery from surgery last winter for a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee wouldn’t stop Gillespie from being a big force in league play.

Of the 10 opposing Big East head coaches, only three even had their current jobs before Gillespie got to Villanova: Cooley at Providence, Greg McDermott at Creighton, and Kevin Willard at Seton Hall. A couple more got there the same year, 2017-18, so they haven’t done their job without Gillespie on their scouting report.

Look at his status this way: Gillespie played 16 productive minutes in Villanova’s 2018 NCAA title game victory over Michigan. Only two current NCAA players, Kihei Clark at Virginia in 2019 and Adam Flagler at Baylor this season, have played more minutes in a title game.

Or look at it this way …

When Gillespie and Villanova teammate Jermaine Samuels were freshmen on that ‘18 championship team, the current Villanova freshmen were in eighth grade.

» READ MORE: Villanova opens at No. 4 in AP preseason college basketball poll

“That’s weird,” Gillespie said of that one. “I feel a little older now.”

Gillespie wasn’t cleared to fully work out until August, so his role this summer was different than his usual kind of coach on the floor. Over the years, Jay Wright has had some of the finest coaches on the floor in NCAA hoops. This, Villanova’s coach said, is different.

“He literally coaches,’’ Wright said, explaining that when he was away coaching at the Olympics, he got reports back on this stuff from his assistants. “He’d literally stop and tell those guys what to do. … He’d be a great coach. I don’t know if he wants to be a coach.”

He doesn’t want to coach?

“I don’t think so,” Wright said.

What’s it like for a coach to have a point guard who has already played 118 college games?

“It’s a little bit different,” Wright said. “What you worry about with a fifth-year guy is that by the end of the year, them just being mentally worn out. Both those guys.”

He meant Gillespie and Samuels, another fifth-year player, who had offseason surgery for a broken right little finger.

“It’s unique,’’ Wright said. “They’re kind of hungry. They were both out so long. Collin, he’s almost like a freshman, itching to come back.”

Gillespie talked about the surgery being the most serious physical setback he’s had, the recovery as “rough at first … It was my journey.”

» READ MORE: Sights and sounds from Villanova hoops’ scrimmage bode well | Mike Jensen

He’s in the phase of getting his legs back now.

“I kind of feel like I was on the right timetable throughout the process,” Gillespie said.

Wednesday, Villanova was the unanimous pick of opposing coaches for Big East favorite. (Wright, not allowed to pick his own team, picked Connecticut, which was chosen second overall.) It’s fair to speculate that if Gillespie hadn’t gotten hurt, he might not have taken advantage of the pandemic opportunity for a fifth year of college. If he hadn’t come back, maybe Villanova still would have been picked first in the Big East, but maybe it wouldn’t have been unanimous. It’s just impossible to ignore what Gillespie brings to a game.

The relationship with his own coach … “It’s different,” Wright said, adding Samuels to the conversation. “They’re so clear on what our goals are. I listen to them. I asked them questions on the train up, what they think about what we’re doing, what suggestions they’d have. I trust them.”

As far as translating what their coaches are saying to his younger teammates, Gillespie said, “I feel like I can explain it in a way they can understand.”

The only surprise in all this … Gillespie isn’t interested in ever coaching?

“I think it’s a possibility for the future,” Gillespie said. “But right now I’m saying no because I want my basketball career to go as long as it possibly can. Coaching is something I’ll think about when I finish playing.”

When that is, Gillespie can’t predict, just like he couldn’t have predicted he’d be back on the Main Line for this season. The easy forecast? The presence of this one guy changes the equation for an entire league.