This Villanova team was going to be Justin Moore’s team. His head coach put it that simply: Moore knew he’d be the go-to guy, until circumstances changed and all of a sudden Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels were returning for a fifth season.
Jay Wright remembers a brief conversation with Moore, probably last spring, " ‘Yo, you’re good, right?’ He just said, ‘Yeah!’ "
He was, he is, and Villanova is, back now in the top 10 nationally, since the best teams are never one-man bands. Moore, heading into his third season, got it instinctively. But it does require a bit of sacrifice, not just on the court.
» READ MORE: Providence coach felt Gillespie's grit
“Collin kind of gets that all-American boy prestige, which is deserved,” Wright said, speaking Friday ahead of Saturday’s game against Georgetown. “But Justin is just as big a part of it.”
The Providence game Tuesday, which easily goes down as Villanova’s biggest win of the season, showcased the whole dynamic. Gillespie was the hero of the 89-84 victory, with a career-high 33 points, including a late three-point clincher.
Moore, his backcourt partner, merely got Villanova ahead from the opening possession, hitting a three-pointer. Second possession, Moore in the paint, scoring again. Two and a half minutes in, Moore with a pull-up three, for a 11-6 lead.
Those eight points in the first 151 seconds – do not assume Villanova wins the game without them. By halftime, Moore had 18 points and five defensive rebounds, tops for either team at that end, as Villanova held a 46-39 lead. Moore’s early explosion kept the decibel level down early inside the beyond-full Dunkin’ Donuts Center. The crowd amped up at times, but also stayed tense throughout.
After the game, there were 11 questions at Villanova’s presser. Of the three directed to Moore, two were about the environment, and one, while noting Moore’s own big first half, was asking him about Gillespie.
“He’s a special player, a big-time shot maker, a big-time playmaker,” Moore said when asked about Gillespie. “We know we put the ball in his hands, we got through so many situations in practice, we’ve seen him do it for so many years that something good is going to happen. He’s going to read it and he made the plays today.”
Moore can’t even sprain his ankle and get back quickly without that injury being overshadowed by Gillespie’s ankle sprain. There’s nothing divisive about any of this. Moore has always made it clear he’s good with it. Asked a question after the Providence game about Gillespie, Wright answered it about both players sitting with him. “What’s really cool about him …”
Him being Gilllespie …
“And it’s funny, Justin is becoming the same guy. When he was younger, he was taking charges and diving on loose balls. Now he’s the go-to guy and he’s still taking charges and diving on loose balls.”
Was Wright talking about Gillespie or Moore? Didn’t matter.
“Justin has become that guy,” Wright continued. “Justin, 10 rebounds tonight, at the guard position, had nine defensive rebounds against a great rebounding team, while scoring. He’s the same guy. I just feel blessed to have them with us.”
Having Gillespie with him, to be clear, does not hurt Moore. The ball moves in all directions, and gets to them both. (Brandon Slater and Eric Dixon actually led Villanova with three assists each at Providence.) Moore’s KenPom.com offensive rating is the highest of his career, a slight uptick probably because his turnover rate is the lowest of his career, and the lowest of Villanova’s top six players.
Within the Big East, Moore’s stats hold up as elite. Sixth in scoring, seventh in free-throw percentage, ninth in field-goal percentage, while fourth in minutes played, which is tops on Villanova. The Wildcats are 15-2 when Moore scores 15 or more points, 5-4 when he scores less.
The first question after the Providence game, Moore took it, about what they lean on in a crazy environment like that.
“I think we just lean on each other,” Moore said as Gillespie nodded. “We’re coming into a hostile environment, but we’re focused on each other, 94 by 50 feet. We come in and compete as hard as we can and play for each other – we stick to that, I think we’ll be fine.”
A sensible answer, taking the emotion out of it, after the pair had combined for 52 points.
“Collin does get so much attention,” Wright said Friday. “Justin does all the little work, all the little things for us. He is the consummate winner. Defensively, he’s the guy who guards the best player. He can switch on to anybody. He rebounds against big guys. He gets the ball in post-ups, kicks the ball. He does so many things to make us win, and then when we need him to score, he scores.”
Since the quick conversation last offseason, there’s been no further discussion, Wright said.
“You don’t have to talk -- that’s the beauty of it,” Wright said. “You don’t even talk to him about that stuff.”
After the Providence game, Wright said, a quick text came in from Moore’s father.
The message: “Collin Gillespie, player of the year.”