PROVIDENCE, R.I. — An arena drunk with passion, a game separated by two points, a traditional underdog program trying to solidify its status as one of the best teams in the country this season.
And there is Villanova senior Collin Gillespie.
The point guard has the ball where it should be — in his hands — waiting to make the kill. There are less than 30 seconds to go in the game on a frigid Tuesday night in Rhode Island. Villanova leads Providence 82-80. Now it's all Gillespie. He's bleeding clock and he smells blood in the water. The Dunkin' Donuts Center is full-throat, Friars fans hoping their team can do something they've often been unable to do all night: make a big stop.
It won't happen here either.
Gillespie dribbles and dribbles, waits and waits. There's a fly screen. Providence misreads and leaves Gillespie with an open look. He hoists up another shot and in goes his 29th, 30th and 31st points of the night with 28.2 seconds remaining to give Villanova (20-6) a five-point lead.
"Shot of the game," Providence coach Ed Cooley said. "Ooh. Game, set, match right there. That was tough."
COLLIN GILLESPIE IS SO CLUTCH 🔥— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) February 16, 2022
CAREER-HIGH 31 POINTS @NovaMBB @BIGEASTMBB pic.twitter.com/aaZZS7aHbl
Behind a career-high 33 points, Gillespie lifts his No. 10 Wildcats 89-84 over No. 8 Providence, sending a reminder that this is Villanova's league until someone can come and take it from Jay Wright's program. On this night, fans waited for more than an hour in sub-25-degree temperatures to be let into The Dunk. The matchup gave way to a frenzied environment, among the best college basketball can offer. It was believed to be the biggest home game in Providence history. The last time PC was ranked this high this deep into a season: 1976. And it didn't host a top-10 matchup in February that season.
"Being in a (big) environment, being on the road, there's just a togetherness that it brings out in the team," Gillespie said. "It's basically you guys against the world. That's the special part of college basketball."
Gillespie was special. He sank five 3-pointers and fearlessly took on just about every Providence defender. Three-pointers, post-ups, attacks at the rim, all of it.
"He's a special player, a big-time shot maker," junior guard Justin Moore said. "We've seen him do it for so many years."
Steely-eyed Villanova did what it so often does in these situations: took the hits, then delivered bigger ones. How it got the win is the wonder of it, though. Gillespie and Moore have been battling ankle injuries. Wright told me neither was an outright promise to play in this game, even after playing in previous games and battling through. They combined for 52 points vs. PC. Moore, who had 18 points in the first half, also grabbed 10 rebounds.
"These two are hurt," Wright emphasized. "I'll tell you, they're not practicing. Their ankles are swollen and banged up."
Both players hurt their ankles Feb. 2 against Marquette. Wright and his staff had to make a call whether they would shut both players down in an effort to try and get them fully healthy in time for March.
"We had to make that decision," Wright told CBS Sports. "Like, do we have enough time to shut them down, right? And we thought, if we shut them down, the time it's going to take to get them back. ... Then it takes them a couple games to get back going again, and you can lose your chemistry."
Wright said it's been touch-and-go for a couple of weeks, the team going five-on-none in practice. Villanova's won four in a row after losing at Marquette, but each game comes with a will-they-or-won't-they dilemma with Moore and Gillespie. The two of them refuse to sit out. Just gutting through it.
"Thank God they got through this game," Wright told me. "I haven't seen that. I see them in practice. I haven't seen [this]."
A lot of players would not do the same, for fear of injuries affecting their stats and any other number of factors. Players or their parents would shut guys down, not want to chance playing before March with injuries like this. That's not Gillespie or Moore. Gillespie overruled a team trainer before Villanova's game vs. St. John's last week. He went scoreless for the first time in his career — but had 10 rebounds. That might bother, even on a small level, some players. Gillespie is not that guy.
"At Seton Hall, we literally are on the court for walkthrough day the game saying, 'OK let's see what they can do,'" Wright said.
Gillespie (16.8 ppg) is the steadiest, headiest point guard in the sport, a quintessential college MVP-level kind of player. He's played in a national championship game. He's started 113 games. Guys like this aren't exactly a dying breed, but they're less common, less integral than a generation ago. Wright said Gillespie has such command in practice, he's allowed the freedom to literally stop practice and call out things or clarify stuff for his teammates.
"We've had all great leaders: (Jalen) Brunson, (Ryan) Arcidiacono," Wright said. "He's the one that is most like a coach. He literally stops them [in practice] and teaches them. He'll say, 'Stop. Look, you've got to lock and trail on this. I'm helping high, you're trailing.' ... He's a teacher."
This came in handy on Tuesday night, when The Dunk was so loud, players couldn't hear Wright beyond maybe 15 feet from the sideline.
Hearing Wright talk himself through the Providence win, it's clear he knows just how lucky he is to have Moore and Gillespie. I remember walking past Gillespie as he sat, injured, watching from the second level at Hinkle Fieldhouse last March. Villanova was knocked out of the tournament by eventual champ Baylor. He was helpless from afar, his knee in a black, bulky brace.
Nights like Tuesday are why he had to come back. Until the game got going, Wright told me he felt like it was going to be Eric Dixon, Caleb Daniels and Jermaine Samuels who produced the most. It was almost an improv of a game plan. As long as Villanova has Gillespie, it has a chance. That's called a culture win. Few teams could do what the Wildcats did vs. the Friars.
"That was as high level of a game as you're gonna see in college basketball," Cooley said.
As for Providence (21-3), it earned that No. 8 ranking, even if no predictive metric logged it as the eighth-best team, let alone in the top 25. The Friars are still a game ahead in the Big East in the loss column (Providence is 11-2, Villanova is 13-3) and these teams will meet again on March 5 in the regular season finale. Both proved their reputations well. Villanova is still the king of the conference. Providence is no phony.
"Just a great college basketball game," Wright said. "I'm proud of our guys for coming into this environment and proud of the Big East. This is what Big East basketball is all about."
Going O-fer in league play usually leads to a coaching change
Georgetown is a 17-point underdog in its game Wednesday at Marquette. The Hoyas are 6-18, and at 0-13 in the Big East, GU is one of five teams (Delaware State, IUPUI, Lamar, San Jose State) without a win in conference play.
KenPom.com projects Georgetown's chances of not winning a Big East game at 43.3% If it doesn't, Georgetown would become the 13th team in the past 25 years to go winless in league play in a power conference. I'm defining "power conference" as the top seven leagues right now (football's Power Five, plus Big East and the AAC) but also included the Atlantic 10, as it was a league of high esteem and reliably had multiple bids in the '90s and deep into the 2000s.
Obviously there's uncertainty around the Hoyas' program. The question is, if Georgetown was to go winless in league play, would Patrick Ewing be at a high risk of not staying at his post? History says yes, though it's not definitive. Since 1997, these are the teams and coaches to go winless and part ways (usually with a firing) at the end of that season.
- Baylor, 1999 (0-16) / Harry Miller after fifth season
- Northwestern, 2000 (0-16) / Kevin O'Neill after third season
- Texas A&M, 2004 (0-16) / Melvin Watkins after sixth season
- Oregon State, 2008 (0-18) / Jay John fired sixth season
- Fordham, 2010 (0-16) / Derrick Whittenburg after seventh season
- Pitt, 2018 (0-18) / Kevin Stallings fired second second
- Tulane, 2019 (0-18) / Mike Dunleavy fired third season
- Vanderbilt, 2019 (0-18) / Bryce Drew fired third season
- Iowa State, 2021 (0-18) / Steve Prohm fired sixth season
There have been three coaches to go winless in a power conference who managed to keep their jobs.
- DePaul, 2009 (0-18) / Jerry Wainwright, was in fourth season, lasted one more
- TCU, 2014 (0-18) / Trent Johnson, was in second season, stayed two more
- Boston College, 2016 (0-18) / Jim Christian, was in second season, stayed five more
Ewing is the most important player (and second most important figure) in the history of the program. I believe it's time for Georgetown to separate from Ewing and try to move on from the John Thompson Jr. tree. But Georgetown will not fire Ewing. If there is going to be a vacancy there this year, Ewing will have to be the one to make that decision. Does he want to step away with Georgetown at its lowest point in decades, or will one more year allow him a chance to turn that team in an improved direction? Let's see if the Hoyas can win a league game before the Big East Tournament, which they won last year as a No. 8 seed.
Mike Brey's hands-off approach has turned Notre Dame around
Last March, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey summoned his team to his house for a Sunday get-together. Good food, solid vibes, but some disappointment in the air. An 11-15 season was mercifully over. Nevertheless, Brey wanted to make sure his team watched the 2021 Selection Show together.
"It wasn't a browbeating, it was just, 'I'm telling you guys, there's not a better feeling than what you're seeing right here,'" Brey told CBS Sports. "We've got 365 days, let's chase it down."
None of the players who were at Brey's house that night had experienced playing in the NCAA Tournament. A month from today, the Irish could be gearing up for a first round game in the Big Dance. Notre Dame hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since 2017, but this team is 18-7 and in the midst of a significant and surprising in-season turnaround. On Dec. 11, Notre Dame bested a ranked Kentucky team. At the time, it was a head-scratching result. Now it's a quality loss for Kentucky while also being the win that's helped validate Notre Dame's season.
"Getting back to the tournament would be huge — if we could do it it would be such a great story," Brey said.
A week before Christmas, Notre Dame was 4-5 and seemingly headed toward another bad year in the winter of Brey's career. In the past year, there'd been rumbles about whether or not Brey would keep his job or opt to walk away from his contract before it expired. On Dec. 3 a 73-57 loss at Boston College was, according to Brey, "certainly a low point, there's no question, but it also feels like it didn't even happen this season."
The Irish, who host Boston College on Wednesday night, have only two losses in the past two months.
The Irish didn't have an identity in early December. Point guard Prentiss Hubb came off the bench in that game, something that was unthinkable heading into the season. Then the team went a week without a game. Brey said that was "a week of mental training camp." He kept the team at his house Christmas; he didn't want to chance things with omicron. He catered in, they spent a lot of time preparing for how to flip their season. Three days after Christmas, Hubb hit the winning shot vs. Pitt, and it's been mostly good since. The Irish are the second-place team in the ACC.
What makes this even more surprising is the strict seven-man rotation. Brey made that decision early this season, to keep things tight and understood: we are playing only seven guys. His assistants disagreed, but he stood firm. Now that seven-man rotation, featuring star freshman and projected NBA pick Blake Wesley, has been clicking. There are seven players on Notre Dame's roster getting degrees this spring, and that experience combined with Wesley's natural talent has pushed the Irish to a safe seed (for now).
"Prentiss Hubb is his big brother," Brey said of Wesley. "He says, 'I need this guy to win.' That's really cool to see because that can be really fragile. He's been nothing but 'I got this guy coach.'"
I spoke to Brey on Wednesday morning, and he said the past few years, while a disappointment (he even had to make staff changes last year, which is often an ominous sign), were how things went so often with teams. Young teams struggled, they stayed together, and by the time the most important players were juniors or seniors, pieces fell into place.
The reliables on this team — Hubb, Nate Laszewski, Cormac Ryan, Dane Goodwin — were freshmen at a time when the ACC had three teams earn 1-seeds. Now they're taking advantage of a down year in the ACC. Brey told me this team has as much collective ownership over its play, its practice habits — all the small things the public doesn't see but coaches cherish — as any of his really good teams over the past 15 years.
"This group is really chasing it," Brey said. "When they have ownership of themselves, do not over-coach them. Stay the hell out of the way. "
It's working. Brey has less micro-managing instincts than most coaches. During timeouts, he often lets the players work out schemes and hash out assignments in real time as he stands outside the huddle. On Tuesday, practice was going so well that Brey told me he left 45 minutes in because there was an energy he did not want to disrupt.
"I'm just going to coach the fabric," Brey said. "The heads, the psyches, the confidences."
The Court Report's mailbag! Find me on Twitter, toss a question and I'll answer some each week.
More perplexing team: Rutgers or Alabama?— Michael Coulter (@MikeCoulter12) February 12, 2022
Both play Wednesday night. Rutgers at home vs. Illinois, Alabama at home vs. Mississippi State. The Crimson Tide are safely in the field. Rutgers just played its way onto the bubble.
Rutgers' résumé: 5-3 in Quad 1; 2-3 in Quad 2; 2-2 in Quad 3; 6-1 in Quad 4. Has not played on a neutral court. Best team sheet metric: SOR (59). Worst team sheet metric: NET (81).
Bama's résumé: 6-5 in Quad 1; 4-2 in Quad 2; 6-2 in Quad 3. Defeated Gonzaga, Houston, Baylor, Tennessee, Arkansas. Lost at Missouri, Georgia. Has the No. 1 strength of schedule. Best team sheet metric: KPI (7). Worst team sheet metric: NET (22).
Rutgers has the wilder swings, but Alabama is more perplexing. As I wrote in January, this team should terrify you when it comes time to predict what it will do in the bracket.
@MattNorlander you think chet holmgren is the next @KDTrey5 ?— Eddie Jedinak (@Fathertime520) February 12, 2022
Absolutely not. But, as I detailed in my extensive profile on Chet Holmgren last week, the Gonzaga freshman's appeal is based in part due to his one-of-a-kind nature. There has never been a player like him in college basketball. Here's one factoid to back that statement up. According to STATS, Holmgren is the only Division I player in the past 25 years to average of more than 14 points per game, more than three blocks per game, shoot better than 60% from the field and more than 40% from 3-point range. Expanding further, those numbers can't even be matched even by cherry-picking the best number in each season of any one player's career.
@MattNorlander @GaryParrishCBS John Beilein... Maryland, Lville... feel like Maryland fits. Thoughts?— Jeff Dillon (@jeffrdillon) February 11, 2022
John Beilein is 69 years old. If he is going to ever get back into college coaching, this would have to be the year. I don't expect it to happen.
@MattNorlander Is there going to be a March montage? And is it weird that I’m excited for the CBS Tournament theme 3x a week in less than 3 weeks? I’ll hang up and listen.— Adam Hefty (@adamhefty) February 10, 2022
Adam is referring to the Eye on College Basketball podcast tradition of opening the first episode of every March with an NCAA Tournament-infused production. Yes, it's already in the works.
• Illinois State coach Dan Muller stepped down this week. Current coaching vacancies unaccounted for: ISU, Louisville, Maryland, Seattle, Sacramento State, Binghamton and Lafayette.
• One job that is not open: High Point. Tubby Smith stepped down on Wednesday but will be succeeded by son G.G. Smith.
• What do Alabama, Duke, Florida, Gonzaga, Iowa State, Michigan State, North Carolina, Oregon, Oregon State, Portland, Portland State, Purdue, UConn, Villanova, West Virginia and Xavier have in common? Those are the 16 men's teams that will compete in November's Phil Knight Invitational and Phil Knight Legacy events in Portland, Oregon, over Thanksgiving week. Informally, this is the PK85; five years ago, the PK80 was such a success, Nike opted to do another event in honor of its founder, Phil Knight. Obviously this will be the biggest November event in college basketball next season.
• In light of the Horizon League walking back its decision to ban all UIC players from league postseason events for winter and spring sports, I followed up with sources to see if CAA and America East were potentially open to reversing their decisions for James Madison (CAA) or Stony Brook (AE). At this point, JMU, which is leaving for the Sun Belt, seems like it has no chance, while chances for relief for Stony Brook, leaving for the CAA, are slim but not impossible. The hope is that the presidents in those leagues will reconsider after the Horizon League took the high road and made the correct decision with the interests of the players at the focal point of the decision.
• Speaking of the CAA, it's the conference with the closest league race. There is merely six-point difference between Towson, Hofstra and UNCW to share the league title according to BartTorvik.com's calculations. That's wildly close this deep into the season.
• And yet, the most crowded league race with the greatest potential for bracket chaos? Give me the WAC. Seattle, New Mexico State, Grand Canyon, Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State, Utah Valley AND Abilene Christian all rank in the top 150 at KenPom. It's a one-bid league and that conference bracket is going to be vicious next month.
• Couldn't help but notice that the Big Ten doesn't have a team in the top 10 at KenPom. Highest ranked: Purdue at No. 11. Torvik gives Illinois a 73% chance to finish with a share of the regular season title.
• Texas forward Tre Mitchell has taken a leave of absence from the team for personal reasons, Chris Beard announced Tuesday.
• Something to keep an eye on: I'm talking with men's basketball selection committee chair Tom Burnett for a story Friday on the NCAA's in-season top-16 bracket reveal which will air Saturday at 12:30 p.m. on CBS.