Collin Gillespie accepts the inbounds pass in the backcourt, crosses the midcourt line and sizes up what he wants to do, all the while keeping his dribble a steady rhythm against a wary defender.
The Villanova point guard might move to the left wing and either go back to the free-throw circle or drive the baseline. Or he could just dart down the lane and pass out to a teammate stationed at the three-point arc. Or he might pass off, get open on the wing, catch a return pass and take one of his favorite shots — a one-dribble-to-the-left three-pointer.
This is what the Wildcats offense mostly looks like and yes, it looks familiar, having been passed on from Ryan Arcidiacono to Jalen Brunson — the starting point guards on the two national championship teams — to Gillespie, now a seasoned veteran as a junior.
“I would say Arch taught it to us,” ‘Nova coach Jay Wright said this week during a break in preparations for Villanova’s debut Thursday night in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals. “I would say Jalen got it from Arch, perfected it and then added to it. Then Collin is kind of taking pieces from what both of those guys did.
“He’s not Jalen that’s so good with his back to the basket, but he’s good. He’s not as good as Arch with the face-up, get somebody in the air, but he’s got some of that, too, in-between the two of them.”
Former UCLA and St. John’s coach Steve Lavin has noticed. Now a Fox Sports television analyst, Lavin said the scheme was a version of how Magic Johnson would run the offense for the Los Angeles Lakers, or how Steve Nash would explore the defense before finding an open Phoenix Suns teammate.
“Jay has a culture that encourages individuality within the team concept,” Lavin said last week in a telephone interview. “That’s where a player is going to be most comfortable. Gillespie learned from Jalen Brunson, and Brunson learned from Arcidiacono. But you still have to be yourself.
“The coaching staff understands that and encourages the players to be their best self within the Villanova way so they can perform at a higher level as a team. There’s an element of each guy being able to look, probe and explore. They may get fouled, get closer to the bonus or the double bonus. They put opponents in foul trouble and now you’ve got starters on the bench as a result.”
Wright admits that when he wanted to tweak his offense early in Arcidiacono’s career, he “stole” the current idea from Nash and his coach, Mike D’Antoni, whose style was more up-tempo than what Villanova runs but emphasizes the three-point shot.
With the Wildcats a little short on guards this season, Gillespie has had much to do. His averages of 34.2 minutes per game overall and 35.8 minutes in Big East contests lead the team. He has dished 4.5 assists per game and has kept his turnovers down handling the basketball, posting a 2.3 assist-to-turnover ratio (2.6 in Big East games).
“We like to play inside-out where we can get the ball to the baseline and get post touches and try to play inside-out, or outside-in,” Gillespie said. “It doesn’t really matter to us. We’ve just got to do what we do. It’s not really any different for me. I’m just trying to be aggressive, create for other guys and get other guys easy opportunities.
“I wasn’t able to see a lot of Arch do it, but I saw that Jalen did it a lot where he would play out of the post, so I definitely learned a lot from him.”
With no true point guard backup, Wright said Gillespie has the most pressure on him of anyone at his position since Maalik Wayns in 2011-12 when the Wildcats finished 13-19, their worst record in Wright’s 19 seasons on the Main Line.
“Ty Johnson left early that year and it was all on Maalik,” Wright recalled. “We had a lot of pressure on him. I kind of compare that to this year. Colln probably has more on his shoulders this year except for that year with Maalik.
“Collin had to guard [Jahvon] Blair at Georgetown, their best shooter. He runs our offense, he scores, he rebounds. He’s been incredible.”
The grind may have worn down Gillespie late in the season. After sinking 12 of 19 threes in wins at Temple and DePaul, he went into a 3-of-23 slump over the next four games before bouncing back with a 3-of-5 showing Saturday at Georgetown. His shooting rarely affects his play in other areas.
“Even when he wasn’t scoring, he was still doing a lot of other things in terms of contributing,” Lavin said. “Even having the shooting slump, Villanova was still able to win games because that speaks to the balance and the improvement of the underclassmen. You knew Gillespie would eventually return to form, and if all the other players have improved along the way, then it sets up an impressive run like they’ve had.”
And if that run continues this week at Madison Square Garden, where Villanova will attempt to win its fourth consecutive Big East Tournament, Gillespie will be in the center of it all.