Nylon Calculus: How will Villanova replace an All-American point guard?

The Villanova Wildcats have lost their All-American point guard and don’t really have a replacement — do they have any hope in the Tournament?

Collin Gillespie has been the heart and soul of Villanova over the past two seasons. The senior guard started every game since his sophomore year and finished first and second on the Wildcats in assists and scoring, respectively, over the past two seasons. As co-Big East Player of the year and a likely All-American, Gillespie had his eyes set on a deep Big East and NCAA tournament run, opportunities he lost in 2020 due to the COVID-19 cancellations.

Unfortunately, a torn MCL in Villanova’s March 3 game against Creighton prematurely ended his season, leaving Villanova scrambling to replace his production with a roster that does not employ a legitimate backup point guard. As the leading setup man and a primary scoring option, head coach Jay Wright needs to find a way to redistribute Gillespie’s touches and replace the 14.7 points and 4.5 assists that Gillespie has averaged over the past two years.

The Wildcats have some obvious candidates to replace Gillespie’s scoring, but nobody to replace his playmaking. I am going to dig in to see how each player plays without Gillespie on the floor. The team needs to replace his scoring and playmaking without sacrificing efficiency and ball security. I am looking for a glimmer of hope that some combination of wings can replicate Gillespie and set up Villanova for a successful tournament run.

Notes on Statistics

All statistics derive from play-by-play data available on NCAA.org and cover games from the start of the 2019-20 season through March 10, 2021.

Villanova averages 67 possessions per game over the past two seasons, and the starters play around 32 minutes, which means each starter plays about 53.6 possessions per game. All player statistics in this article will be on a per-53.6 possessions basis. This way, we can analyze a subset of a player’s statistics as if they played starter minutes.

Also note that Collin Gillespie has been an integral part of the team for the past two seasons, so lineups that do not include him have relatively small sample sizes. All analysis comes with the caution that the conclusions drawn could be noise rather than signal, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl: Far less efficient

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl does not seem fit to fill in for any of Gillespie’s roles. Without his starting point guard, the Wildcat’s leading scorer falls off in efficiency and volume. His scoring declines a small amount, and his efficiency plummets when he plays without Gillespie. His increase in free throw rate and decrease in 3-point attempts indicates that he changes his playstyle and drives to the basket more often, but that does not lead to better scoring efficiency. For Robinson-Earl to succeed without Gillespie, he should rely more on a perimeter game and not force the issue inside.

Justin Moore: Too many turnovers

While Justin Moore’s efficiency falls off slightly, he does not fare as poorly as Robinson-Earl without Gillespie on the floor. Moore also drives more, with a higher free throw rate and lower 3-point attempt rate, and ends up with moderately higher scoring volume, up 22 percent from 11.9 points per 55 to 14.6. Unfortunately, his turnovers increase significantly, more than doubling.  Moore should pay more attention to his decision-making with the bigger offensive load. While does not handle the increase in usage too poorly from an efficiency standpoint, he hands the opponent free points too often.

Jermain Samuels: Possible playmaker?

Jermaine Samuels looks like a strong candidate to replace Gillespie’s scoring and playmaking.  While he only produces moderate assists numbers, neither of the two previous players experience any sort of bump.  Samuels’ increase from 2.2 per 55 to 2.8 shows some signs of potential, though his additional turnovers create some cause for concern. Once again, the Wildcats seem to play with a different style when Gillespie sits. Along with Robinson-Earl and Moore, Samuels shoots fewer 3s and more free throws, albeit on lower overall efficiency. Though his efficiency falls off, the Wildcats should lean into Samuel’s overall efficient scoring and hope that he can handle a larger playmaking role.

Cole Swider: Lucky shooting or open shots?

While Cole Swider does not carry a reputation of a star scorer, in lineups without Gillespie he picks up his scoring and efficiency. However, this comes mostly on the back of a 10 percentage point increase to his 3-point percentage, likely a statistical anomaly in a smaller sample. Wright and his coaching staff should evaluate film to determine whether Swider plays differently or takes better shots with Gillespie on the bench. Swider does not add anything in terms of facilitation, and even less without Gillespie, so he cannot fill in for that role. Villanova should look to leverage Swider’s shooting to get additional scoring on the floor.

Brandon Slater: A possible replacement?

Brandon Slater looks like the best player to fill some of the holes left by the team’s starting point guard. Without Gillespie, Slater ups his scoring and overall efficiency, while also facilitating more and turning the ball over less. Even with worse 3-point shooting, the increase in his drives and free throws improves his scoring efficiency. The small increase in assists and drop in turnovers indicate that, while not on the back of a large sample, he can handle facilitating responsibilities without sacrificing ball security. While Moore and Robinson-Earl both lost efficiency when they increased their drives, Slater’s improvements should merit him taking the slasher role compared to the other wings. Slater should also take on some more facilitating responsibilities. While he does not assist much, he is the only Wildcat that has evidence of the ability to increase his playmaking without experiencing worse ball security.

Without Collin Gillespie on the court, every player for the Wildcats drives more and shoots less.  Jeremiah Robinson-Earl’s scoring and efficiency both fall off, and Justin Moore’s massive increase in turnovers makes them both poor candidates to replace Gillespie.  Jermain Samuels remains a moderately efficient scorer and shows a slight ability to facilitate as well.  While not his strong suit, Jay Wright should look to see how well Samuels can fill in for Gillespie’s playmaking.  Cole Swider experiences a big bump in scoring and efficiency, though his 10 percentage point increase in 3-point shooting suggests that this may just come from luck.

Villanova should dig into the film to determine whether Swider simply shot better through luck, or if the increase in drives without Gillespie opened up more drive-and-kick opportunities for Swider to knock down shots. Brandon Slater looks like the best candidate to expand his offensive role for the Gillespie-less Wildcats. Only Slater benefits from the slashing-not-shooting offense that Villanova plays without Gillespie, all other players on the team suffer from an efficiency standpoint. He also shows a small ability to create for others without giving the ball to the other team, something rare on this Villanova roster and a possible unexploited strength in Slater’s game that saves the team from an early exit to Winthrop.

Replacing a senior All-American point guard is never easy, especially when the team’s backup point guard Chris Arcidiacono played a grand total of 37 career minutes before Gillespie’s injury.  Jay Wright has to leverage any semblance of evidence that his players give him to make up for Gillespie’s scoring and playmaking.  Swider, Slater, and Samuels each look like decent candidates to pick up a few extra points, Moore and Robinson-Earl seem to already hit their scoring ceiling with Gillespie on the floor. Samuels and Slater both show slight hints at an ability to create for others, and the Wildcats should at least see how a Samuels-and-Slater-led offense performs.

There is not much data. There is not much hope. The Villanova faithful can only hope that Father Peter calls in a favor to the big guy, and that still might not help. But this is March, and anything can happen. Go ‘Cats.

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