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Heading into the 2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, the Villanova Wildcats were in a pickle.
While their #5 seed was certainly favorable, Villanova’s inner workings were in severe flux, and you did not need a magnifying lens to see it. Heading into March Madness, the Wildcats lost three of their last four games. To make matters worse, their one win over the stretch (72-60 on Mar. 3 against the Creighton Blue Jays) brought a bittersweet pill the team had to agonizingly swallow. Although the Wildcats maintained a double-digit lead with less than seven minutes to go in the half, Collin Gillespie exited the game with an apparent knee injury after the senior guard awkwardly fell inside the paint while attempting to guard Creighton’s Damien Jefferson.
While Villanova fans held their breath, the worst was expected, and the worse indeed happened. Gillespie tore his MCL. The injury, if it needed to be said, utterly stripped away one of the most intricate pieces toward Villanova’s success on the floor.
Without Gillespie’s scoring prowess (he was averaging 14.0 points per game while shooting over 37% from beyond the arc and 80% from the line at the time of the injury), Villanova, on paper, would be severely limited in regard to the firepower they could bombard an opponent with. Such was the reason why many a bracket filler picked the Winthrop Eagles to knock off the 2018 National Champions in the opening round of 2021 tournament.
“On paper” is the key term, here. In actuality, a player that gave Villanova an active title chance would be no one other than Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.
Robinson-Earl was definitely not a nobody before the Gillespie injury. When compared to his freshman campaign, the sophomore forward was an improved player on all sides of the floor. In fact, Robinson-Earl is currently one of four Wildcat players to average more than 10 points or more during the course of the 2020-21 campaign, postseason included (Gillespie, Justin Moore and Jermaine Samuels are the other three).
What Robinson-Earl has done for the team since the Gillespie injury, however, has been the difference between Villanova dancing and Villanova sitting on the couch. In four games since the Creighton game, Robinson-Earl has averaged 19 points, nine rebounds and four assists per game. Additionally, the Kansas City native has averaged close to 37 minutes per contest and has collectively shot 52% while on the floor (29-57).
The pinnacle of the much-needed production has come through the first two rounds of the 2020-21 NCAA Division I Men’s Tournament. Although Winthrop had the firepower within the paint and off of the glass in the opening round, Robinson-Earl was able to match the power with his own prowess, as he tallied 22 points and 11 total rebounds in the game (three offensive and eight defensive). Defensively, he even picked up a season-high three blocks, which, when combined with his defensive presence inside the perimeter, helped shut down Winthrop’s methodical inside offense.
The 73-63 win over the Eagles was not the end, but in fact only the beginning for Robinson-Earl. Another 18 points and six rebounds against the North Texas Mean Green definitely assisted in bringing forth a resounding 84-61 victory for his program. “Assisted,” in fact, would sum up Robinson-Earl’s performance perfectly during the contest, as his six assists in the contest would also be a season-high.
And so, the Wildcats find themselves in their first Sweet Sixteen appearance since they won the entire tournament in 2018. While the team definitely put forth the necessary effort to offset the loss of Gillespie, Robinson-Earl has been the versatile jack-of-all-trades player the Wildcats needed when they were in their most vulnerable state.
The Robinson-Earl-led Wildcat machine is churning, and one thing is for certain.
Villanova is not in as big of a pickle as once thought.