Dissecting a bittersweet night at the Pavilion.
While we all anxiously await a Gillespie announcement, let’s dive into some takeaways:
1. Outright League Champions
It’s incredibly difficult to look big picture right now. But before we dive into what may be a bleak outlook in the short-term, let’s take a moment to appreciate the long-term success this program has had. Since the new Big East began in 2013-2014, Villanova has won 7 of the 8 league championships, and 4 of the 6 tournament championships. From 2015-2018, Villanova may have been the best overall team in the country, with almost all of the key contributors moving on and having impactful NBA careers. However, since the 2018 National Championship, there have been some unforeseen hurdles thrown at the Wildcats, from staff turnover, to unexpected early departures, to injuries to top recruits. Despite the half-step back from the mountaintop, Jay Wright and his players have gutted out at least a share of the league crown each of the last three seasons. No matter what happens going forward, this outright league championship will validate the work this group put in this season and how consistent this program has been.
2. Wild Speculation about Gillespie’s Knee Injury
With no one from Fox Sports in the building last night, Nova Nation was left to overanalyze Collin Gillespie’s movements on the bench, reactions from his family in the stands, and from non-descript quotes from Jay Wright after the game to determine the severity of the injury. Let’s just assess where we’re at as of Thursday afternoon.
Almost all scenarios are bleak at this point. “Our trainer said it looks pretty serious,” Jay Wright said of the Gillespie injury. “We can’t say what it is. We’re getting a MRI tomorrow morning, but he said it’s pretty serious, there’s no chance he comes back second half. But I’ll be honest with you, he’s not saying he’ll be fine.”
There are a range of scenarios that we could be looking at, none of them great.
Obviously, the worst case scenario is a torn ACL. Not only would that end Gillespie’s season, it would greatly impact his professional aspirations for next season. Although ‘Nova fans may be excited about the potential of Gillespie using the extra year of eligibility to rehab, recover, and play part of next season, this is a huge blow to a player who had turned some heads this season and found his way onto a few Top 100 prospects lists. Whether he has to try to find a professional team while rehabbing an ACL tear, or is forced to forego a year of earnings to stay in college and rehab, this would be a heartbreaking diagnosis.
Even the best case scenarios aren’t great. If the injury falls in the “serious” category, Gillespie is likely looking at a minimum of a month-long rehab. Almost exactly a year ago, Marcus Zegerowski had a non-tear injury to his meniscus in the final game of the regular season. He was ruled out of the Big East Tournament and it was later revealed he would not have been able to come back for the NCAA tournament, had it been played. A similar diagnosis could lead to some hope of a late NCAA tournament return for Gillespie, but I think it would mostly be gamesmanship by Villanova in order to protect their seeding. We are simply too late in the season for someone to recover from a significant knee injury, tear or otherwise, and return to form.
3. Where does this team go from here?
Fortunately for Villanova, it was able to try out its new Gillespie-less roster for the final 30 minutes against a Creighton team that looked very much like a team processing their own different type of turmoil. There was plenty to glean from what we saw last night regarding how the Wildcats will attempt to play without their leader.
From an offensive standpoint, Gillespie was responsible for initiating a majority of possessions. We saw last night how Jay Wright will probably adjust. We saw a lot of the same high-ball screen action with Justin Moore that we usually see when Gillespie is resting. But we also saw a lot of early-possession post-ups for Jermaine Samuels where he looked to bend the defense before attacking or distributing. Samuels’ hot shooting streak seems to have abruptly ended, but he is still very effective at drawing fouls and added seven assists last night.
One of the more intriguing developments last night was Jeremiah Robinson-Earl’s playmaking as emergency point guard. He has struggled all year to get by his defender to get to the rim, but last night he looked far more comfortable attacking the paint off a live dribble with momentum than he has off of shot-fakes or jabs. Given all of his defensive responsibilities, it is unlikely we will see this as a primary option, but it is a nice option to have, especially when Robinson-Earl is being guarded by a true center.
Overall ball-handling is going to be a major issue. Creighton made a smart adjustment last night to give sophomore reserve Shareef Mitchell heavy minutes in the 2nd half to make Justin Moore work to get the ball up the floor. It was very effective in getting the junior guard, and Villanova as a whole, out of any offensive rhythm. The Wildcats went eight minutes without scoring at one point, and it seemed longer than that. It will have to be a team effort, but there simply isn’t a lot of ball handling ability on the roster outside of Gillespie.
Lastly, perhaps the most underrated part of how this injury will affect the team is the rotation. Gillespie may have been one of the most important players, but the reality is, a major injury to any of the members of the 7-man rotation was going to have a huge impact on the ceiling of this team. To start the second half, Jay Wright went with Brandon Slater as the new starter and Villanova extended the lead. However, with Slater in the starting lineup, the only three remaining players are huge defensive liabilities. Eric Dixon was not used as he continues to deal with injuries. Cole Swider has improved on the defensive end, but continues to be targeted by opponents because of his lack of foot speed. Bryan Antoine hit an early three last night and has showed the ability to make some plays, but consistently gets crossed up in screening actions that lead to immediate good looks. Jay Wright went to Swider and Antoine together in the middle of the second half and watched a 22-point lead immediately get cut in half, almost exclusively because of defensive breakdowns by the reserves.
For a team that was struggling to find consistency on both ends, losing their most experienced player is absolutely brutal. However, adversity creates opportunity. It will be very interesting to see what players like Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Justin Moore, Brandon Slater, and Bryan Antoine do with more pressure and more opportunities. There may not be a bigger test of this program’s “Attitude” mantra than what the next few weeks will bring.