By: Rich Flanagan
PHILADELPHIA – Jay Wright stared out into the flurry of media waiting for him to address Villanova’s loss to Kansas in the Final Four in New Orleans. Wright’s dismayed responses coupled with the melancholy glare at a squandered opportunity gave way to a distinct moment when reflecting on the career of Collin Gillespie.
Gillespie will always be revered in Villanova lore for a variety of reasons, but the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame head coach summed up what his point guard - the same one that didn’t get on his radar until midway through one of the most notable high school seasons in Pa. hoops history - meant to the program.
“At Villanova, the mission of the university is about community, love and truth, and he’s a Villanova man,” Wright said. “He’s a great Villanova man and that’s a big part of our program. It’s not just about being a basketball player and he’s one of the best ever.”
Villanova guard Collin Gillespie, 2022 Big East Tournament MVP - PSD Photo by Mike Nance
The floor general who became the first player in Big East Conference history to win conference player of the year, conference tournament most outstanding player and scholar-athlete of the year was underrecruited and underappreciated throughout four, high school varsity seasons. His legacy will forever be cemented with the likes of Patrick Ewing (Georgetown), Chris Mullin (St. John’s). Richard Hamilton (UConn), Troy Murphy (Notre Dame), Kris Dunn (Providence) and Troy Bell (Boston College) as multi-time winners of the Big East POY award. The genesis of that rise began in Huntingdon Valley at St. Albert the Great in CYO Region 11.
Andrew Funk first heard the name Collin Gillespie while playing for St. Robert Bellarmine in Warrington. For a player who will conclude his career at Penn State after scoring 1,230 points in four seasons at Bucknell, Funk got his first glimpse of a player he would eventually join forces with at Archbishop Wood.
“We played in fifth grade CYO against each other,” Funk said. “At that age, you hear kids’ names around the block and league, and you hear this kid is pretty good. It’s one of those things where you definitely knew his name then you play against him and say, ‘Yeah, this kid is going to be pretty good. We’re going to be seeing him a lot down the road.’ It was definitely one of those situations for sure.”
Tommy Funk, Andrew’ older brother who is now stationed as a field artillery officer at Fort Hood, was one of Gillespie’s focal mentors but before the two learned from each other, they played against one another.
“As far back as I can remember, I was playing against Collin at a young age,” Tommy said. “From travel ball to CYO in fifth and sixth grade, he always had something special in him as a player and competitor. I think both of us were able to learn a lot of hard lessons early on about how to be leaders, how to win and how to compete.”
Jay Wright stands between newly appointed Wildcat head coach Kyle Neptune and two-time Big East Player of the Year, Collin Gillespie - PSD Photo by Mike Nance
Andrew Funk recieves PIAA 5A state championship gold medal from Wood head coach John Mosco -PSD photo by Brandon Stivers
The fabled stories that preceded an illustrious career emanated humbly on the CYO hardwood and spread to the surrounding suburbs, more specifically Warminster. Prior to Gillespie’s arrival in 2013, Archbishop Wood had hovered around the middle of the pack. The Vikings reached the Philadelphia Catholic League semifinals in 2005 but it was a struggle to get past the quarterfinals. John Mosco took over at Archbishop Wood prior to Gillespie’s freshman season, one where he played sparingly. Following 16 accomplished years at Neumann-Goretti with Carl Arrigale, Mosco had veteran players like Luke Connaghan (DeSales) and Cody Fitzpatrick in his first season, but he attempted to try something unorthodox: putting two point guards out on the court at the same time to create a different dimension for his offense. Tommy was on one side and Gillespie was on the other, and if either corralled a rebound, they could immediately push the tempo and set up the offense.
Tommy played four seasons at Army culminating his career as the Patriot League’s all-time leader in career assists (728) and tallying 1,544 points in the process, but what made his personal ascent to polished facilitator came in gritty battles against Gillespie before every practice.
“We would play one-on-one every day before practice and, frankly, he would kick my butt,” Tommy said. “I always knew he had that in him, and he was a competitor that would do anything it took to win. Everybody around the Wood program knew what kind of player and person he could be and what he would ultimately lead them to.”
Gillespie’s sophomore season gave Mosco, his teammates, and the rest of the Philadelphia Catholic League their first glimpse of what was to come. Example No. 1 came on Feb. 6, 2015, at the corner of Broad & Vine. Mosco recalls how it ushered in a turning point for the program and Gillespie displayed a quality that has become synonymous with Archbishop Wood guards.
“He gave us our identity in our second year when we beat Roman Catholic at Roman,” Mosco said. “We were down by 12 and he was a little sophomore who wouldn’t quit. He ended up having a strong game and he made a little bit of a name for himself while we became a team that would compete in the Catholic League.”
Gillespie went for 13 points to take down a Cahillites team of Tony Carr, Nazeer Bostick, Gemil Holbrook, Paul Newman and Manny Taylor that finished the season as Philadelphia Catholic League and PIAA Class 4A champions. Roman Catholic enacted revenge in the league quarterfinals but it was the next chapter in an underdog story.
Tommy recalls a matchup with La Salle late in his senior season and Gillespie, then a junior, led the way with a superb performance.
“Later in the season when we had a game at home against La Salle, he had 23 points in front of a big crowd in a rivalry game and he just stayed so calm and level-headed,” Tommy said. “He hit big shot after big shot, and I said to myself, ‘This program is in good hands going on with him at the helm.’”
Matt Cerruti, who just completed his final collegiate season at Albany following a stellar career at Lock Haven, was a member of that Archbishop Wood backcourt with Tommy and Gillespie. He first played against Gillespie while with the Jersey Shore Warriors on the AAU circuit. Gillespie was with Team Final Black and Cerruti would join him as they headed into their senior season.
There was a newfound assertiveness in Gillespie’s game and Cerruti sensed that shift.
“He has that self-confidence that he’s the best player on the floor, no matter who he’s playing with, especially in high school playing against those high major guys and he wasn’t receiving the offers that he wanted,” Cerruti said. “I think it gave him a chip on his shoulder and he played extremely well as a senior because of that chip. He had a lot of things to prove.”
Collin Gillespie holds a well-deserved 2017 state championship trophy alongside Matt Cerruti - PSD Photo by Brandon Stivers
The 2022 Bob Cousy Award winner, given to the nation’s top point guard, solidified his status as one of the most accomplished players in school and league history with a senior season very few could have predicted. Every night was something new and every game was another opportunity to showcase that he was worth the price of admission. He averaged 22.0 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists, and shot 51 percent from the field in leading Archbishop Wood (28-3, 12-1 Philadelphia Catholic League) to its first league and state title in program history.
Gillespie posted 19 games with 20 points or more, including his career-high 42 points against Arrigale, Quade Green, Villanova teammate Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Neumann-Goretti at Archbishop Ryan as Jay Wright witnessed his future point guard play for the first time. He shot 13-for-23 from the floor and 12-for-17 from the free throw line. He had 26 points in the second half and those 42 tied a single-game school record. It was part of an even more remarkable year considering Archbishop Wood played 16 games across 12 different venues after the wall of the gym caved in. The Saints and Vikings met at the Palestra in the Philadelphia Catholic League title game and the Saints were the more comfortable team, taking a 31-18 lead in the locker room at halftime.
What has continued to set Gillespie apart is his ability to be coached and take constructive criticism. His senior season was prolific but moments like halftime of that title game define a player’s career and he answered the challenge posed by his head coach.
“At halftime of the championship game, I blitzed him, and he was having an ok game,” Mosco said. “I said, ‘I don’t know what you think but they’re not going to just let you score 40 because you’re Collin Gillespie. They have both of their bigs at the basket and if you don’t trust your teammates then we’re going to lose.’ He came out and had three or four assists in the first few possessions down the court. The rest is history, and we came back and won.”
A trend Gillespie exhibited throughout the season was the innate awareness to take over late in the game. It was never more evident that at the Palestra when he set a then-Philadelphia Catholic League semifinal record with 33 points against Archbishop Ryan then poured in 22 of his 24 points in the second half to down Neumann-Goretti in the final.
Maine was the first Division I program to offer Gillespie a scholarship, with Albany and Fairleigh Dickinson coming shortly afterward, but performances like those at the Palestra ultimately brought Villanova to the table.
Andrew Funk was the sixth man on that team and saw how Gillespie’s play down the stretch of games built confidence in the entire roster with players like Cerruti, Keith Otto (Gwynedd Mercy/Moravian) and all-time leading scorer Tyree Pickron (Long Island University).
“It’s always huge knowing that you’re going in with a guy like that, especially in crunch time late in the third and fourth quarter,” Andrew said. “In a close game, you have a guy like that on your side who is going to step up and hit the big shot or make the right play. It calms everyone down and makes everyone’s lives a little easier whether it be getting easier shots and making open plays. He had that kind of effect on the team, especially when you’re getting late in the game and we’re going to feed off that.”
He was named Philadelphia Catholic League MVP then added Pa. All-State Class 5A Player of the Year after notching 15 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in the state final in Hershey with a 73-40 victory over Meadville.
The Archbishop Wood Vikings PIAA 5A state championship team - PSD Photo by Brandon Stivers
He concluded his high school career with 1,132 points and beat a plethora of players many considered better than him prior to his senior season: Green (University of Washington/Kentucky), Cosby-Roundtree, Izaiah Brockington (Iowa State/Penn State), Ed Croswell (Providence/La Salle), Seth Lundy (Penn State), AJ Hoggard (Michigan State), Lynn Greer III (St. Joe’s/Dayton), Ajiri Johnson (Rider), Eli Brooks (Michigan), Eric Dixon (Villanova), Nate Pierre-Louis (Temple), and Naz Reid (Minnesota Timberwolves).
None of those players can boast that they were Third Team Associated Press All-American or collected a 124-32 collegiate record that included a National Championship. Gillespie and that 2017 class will be remembered for the run because, as Mosco notes, they were the first to do it.
“Whenever you’re the first, nobody can ever be ahead of you,” Mosco said. “Archbishop Wood was always a competitive program but nothing great in terms of playoff record. My first couple years we were fifth or sixth then ended up having to play a better team and got knocked out in the first round. Those guys were the first ones and have the banner up in the gym because of that.”
He concluded his Villanova career with two Final Four appearances and will forever be cited in the same breadth as Kyle Lowry, Scottie Reynolds, Kerry Kittles, Alvin Williams, Ryan Arcidiacono and Jalen Brunson, a player he learned so much from in their lone year playing together in 2017-18. His senior season came to an abbreviated end on Senior Night as he tore his medial collateral ligament in his left knee and was unable to play in the Big East or NCAA Tournament.
He avg. 13.8 ppg in his final NCAA Tournament before he and the Wildcats succumbed to the Jayhawks, who would hoist the trophy two days later.
To many, he’s known for his accolades and awards but to a close friend like Cerruti, Gillespie is just another one of the guys.
“Collin, Keith, and I talk every day and we would always mention that stuff to Collin,” Cerruti said. “We would say, ‘You’re the Big East Player of the Year playing Fortnite with us,’ and he would just laugh. It’s so unexpected but at the same time, we knew how good he was, and the outside world didn’t expect him to be that good.”
Gillespie’s career rankings at Villanova speak for themselves: first all-time in games played (156), twelfth in points (1,858) and tied with Reynolds for eighth in assists (482). He also made 326 three-pointers for good measure. Regardless of what the future holds, Gillespie has persevered and perfected his craft to fit what he does best. At St. Albert the Great, he was making a name for himself. At Archbishop Wood, he was making sure everyone (and every local program) knew his name. At Villanova, he was demonstrating that a devastating injury wasn’t going to define him. Gillespie has disproved so much about himself and his game and, according to Tommy, he has no problem with outsiders doubting his ability.
“One thing that I’ve earned, and most people should learn about Collin, is that you can’t really doubt him,” Tommy said. “Even after he had one of the best senior seasons in Philadelphia basketball history, people were still doubting what he would do at Villanova. Then he went and obviously shined as the best point guard in the nation. The same thing happened when he got hurt and there were doubts, but people need to learn that Collin Gillespie is going to find a way to get it done.”