‘I had no idea I’d end up being here’: Freddie Gillespie’s path from Division III to Baylor starter

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Freddie Gillespie sat gazing at the TV in the winter of 2017, seeing not just the team that would go on to win the national championship, but his future. 

Despite only having played a handful of years of organized basketball, suffering two broken ankles, a busted foot and a torn ACL and currently operating as a role player at a small Division III program in rural Minnesota, Gillespie looked at those All-Americans, highly-touted recruits and future first-round NBA draft picks and was undaunted by a sudden dream.

“I had an epiphany,” he told NBCSports.com. “I was watching a UNC game, and I saw the size and length that they had and athleticism, and I thought, ‘I’m comparable to that. With a little bit of coaching, I can do pretty well.’”

It would be a laughable thought for almost every player grinding away at the non-scholarship Division III level. Gillespie had hardly registered as a blip on recruiters’ radars while in high school. He was his college team’s fourth-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder. 

The basketball world, though, is sometimes surprisingly small, and Gillespie’s connections – and the fact that he was 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan – helped get the word out he was looking to move up.

Eventually, that landed upon ears in Waco, Texas, where Baylor was willing to take on a player with Division III pedigree and an injury history as a walk-on and project.

“Usually the way it works is if they’re a 6-9 or 6-10 walk-on and they can walk and chew gum, you’re like, ‘Yeah,’” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “We’ve had players like Taurean Prince who was going to Long Island University, ranked 25th in the state, and ended up being drafted 12th in the world. You had Royce O’Neal who was a zero-star recruit and has a chance to be starting for the Jazz this year. We had a walk-on, Mark Shepherd, who started for us and helped lead us to the NCAA tournament. 

“We’ve had guys be successful, but no one came in as raw as he did.”

Two years later, Gillespie enters his senior year with the Bears not only as a scholarship player, but as a starter and key piece to Baylor’s 2020 Big 12 title hopes.

“He put in the hard work to get to where he’s gotten,” Drew said. “It’s a great story for anyone out there that maybe was overlooked early on.”

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Gillespie didn’t start playing basketball until he was an eighth grader. He didn’t even play during his freshman year at East Ridge High School in the Minneapolis/St. Paul suburbs. 

“At that point, the 10th grade coaches said, ‘Hey, it would be cool if you could play for us,’” Gillespie recalled. “I was pretty tall at that point. So I said OK. At that point, I’m just doing this to have something to do.”

Gillespie’s height may have drawn those coaches to him and him to the game, but that height also contributed to keeping him off the court.

“I was growing really fast,” he said, “so your bones aren’t really strong enough because I was growing two, three inches a year.”

Gillespie said he broke both his ankles, suffered a Jones fracture in his foot and tore his ACL during his prep career.

“He played high school ball completely immobile, and that’s if he played at all,” Ryan James, a Minnesota-based recruiting analyst for the Prep Hoops Network, said. “He was also a strong, well-skilled post with good footwork, but all the injuries took away all his mobility.”

Gillespie saw the floor enough, though, for some college recruiters to pay attention – just not at the Division I level. Ultimately, he landed 40 miles south of the Twin Cities in Northfield, Minn., at Carleton College, known more for its rigorous academic standards than its basketball tradition.

“A lot of D3 schools recruited me. I was big into academics so they tried to sell me on the academics of the school,” Gillespie said. “That’s what sold me.”

(Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)

Gillespie apparently wasn’t able to sell himself initially to the coaching staff at Carleton. As a freshman, he played just 16 minutes.

“I was the most athletic, biggest guy in that whole conference,” Gillespie said. “So that was tough.”

His sophomore year brought considerably more success.

Gillespie started 23 games for the Knights, averaging 10 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game while shooting 53.2 percent from the floor. He was a second-team all-conference selection.

“My second year, it was tough too because I didn’t explore and grow,” Gillespie said. “I knew I had a lot of potential, but didn’t grow it like I wanted to. So it was tough. I tried to make the best of what I had there.”

That was the feeling that led Gillespie, after watching the likes of Justin Jackson, Joel Berry and Tony Bradley on TV for North Carolina, to aim higher.

“I was with my friend, we were just sitting there,” Gillespie said, “and I was like, ‘I’ve got what they have. I can do what they do. With a little bit of training and help, I can do what they do.’”

Once the connection to Baylor was made, Gillespie sat down with Drew, who was in Minnesota recruiting future-Duke star Tre Jones.

“He just asked my story, basically,” Gillespie said. “How was it at high school, at D3. He asked questions about my character, my academics. 

“He just asked about everything.”

Baylor wanted to due some due diligence on Gillespie before taking him in, even as a walk-on

“One of our coaches on our staff is from Minnesota, and we knew that (Gillespie) was looking at walking on,” Drew said, “because we knew his goal was to earn a scholarship, we wanted to make sure he had potential.”

Eventually, both sides decided to take the leap. Gillespie would head to Waco without a scholarship, but with a chance to prove he was right about that hunch he had while he sat parked in front of a television.

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

“When he first got in the gym,” Drew said of Gillespie’s arrival on campus, “he struggled to score by himself in the gym.”

Despite having the physical profile of a Big 12 player, Gillespie was miles behind from a skill standpoint, and it was apparent.

“Freddie, he didn’t seem like he was going to be any option for us,” Baylor senior Obim Okeke said. “Luckily for Freddie, Freddie was 6-9.”

Not only was it clear to his coaches and teammates that Gillespie wasn’t ready to contribute, he knew it himself.

“I didn’t feel like I belonged for a long time,” he said. “The athleticism was different. The physicality, the size of the players, the competitive level. The mentality, the way they play. 

“Everyone there was convinced that they’re the best, they’re unbeatable. It’s that competitive mindset. They’ve played against dudes in the NBA. One and dones. Played with them in high school. 

“I felt out of place.”

The only remedy was to stay in one place – the gym.

“It took him awhile,” Drew said. “He didn’t come in as a finished product. He came in as somebody that needed to get better and had potential. People are going to go to practice. People are going to do what’s required of them. It’s those people that do two or three times more that get better and reach their potential.

“That’s what he did.”

Gillespie sat out the 2017-18 season as a redshirt, but continued to work on his game. By the start of last season, Baylor began to believe that Gillespie, now on scholarship, might be able to contribute.

“In the second year, just seeing how far he progressed and seeing what he was able to do on the defensive end and rebounding, and to see how far his touch had come, you’re like, he’s got a chance,” Drew said. “And he plays so hard. You definitely have to see something in practice before you put people in a game, so as a coach, though, you’re never 100 percent convinced until you see him do it in a game.”

Initially, it didn’t translate into the game.

Gillespie played 18 minutes in Baylor’s opener against Texas Southern and then 22 the next game against Southern, but then saw his minutes diminish for the next three games before he didn’t even play in eight of the Bears’ next nine games. The only reprieve was 4 minutes in a 40-point blowout against New Orleans in late December.

“He didn’t have the confidence in himself,” Okeke said. “He felt like he was a D3 player.”

Gillespie, though, got a second chance in Big 12 play. He saw 13 minutes against Kansas in the conference opener. A week later, he played 20 minutes against Texas Tech. He had eight points and seven rebounds against Oklahoma to end January. He followed that with 11 points, seven rebounds and three blocks against TCU.

“He finally got his opportunity to show what he’d been working on every day,” Okeke said. “He probably has the best work ethic on our team. It ended up being shown to light when he started getting his time, the minutes he deserved.”

By Feb. 9, Gillespie was in the Bears’ starting lineup.

“He’s somebody that showed he’d made strides, was successful in practice,” Drew said, “and in the game, to his credit, he didn’t flinch. He got better and better with the minutes he got. That’s why  he got more minutes.”

Gillespie finished Big 12 play with the conference’s best in offensive rebounding percentage and third in 2-point shooting percentage at 64.7. In the Bears’ opener this season, he had 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting with seven rebounds, two assists and a block in 26 minutes.

He’s not only a contributor for the team picked by the league’s coaches to be Kansas’ top threat in the Big 12 this year, but a key component. 

“He lived in the gym, and ended up coming from a Division III player to someone starting in the Big 12,” Drew said. “Sometimes things turn out better than you expected, and I’ll be honest, I don’t think anybody would have seen – maybe besides him – him progressing as quickly as he did.”

Through major injuries and serious detours, Gillespie proved himself. A game he didn’t start seriously playing until high school, followed to Division III and then became convinced he could play at the highest levels. 

It became his dream. One he’s now living.

“I fell in love with it,” he said, “and I thought I started too late so I wouldn’t have a chance. 

“I had no idea I would end up being here.”

(Photo by Boyd Ivey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

College basketball broadcaster Billy Packer dies at 82

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Billy Packer, an Emmy award-winning college basketball broadcaster who covered 34 Final Fours for NBC and CBS, died Thursday. He was 82.

Packer’s son, Mark, told The Associated Press that his father had been hospitalized in Charlotte for the past three weeks and had several medical issues, and ultimately succumbed to kidney failure.

Packer’s broadcasting career coincided with the growth of college basketball. He worked as analyst or color commentator on every Final Four from 1975 to 2008. He received a Sports Emmy for Outstanding Sports Personality, Studio and Sports Analyst in 1993.

“He really enjoyed doing the Final Fours,” Mark Packer said. “He timed it right. Everything in life is about timing. The ability to get involved in something that, frankly, he was going to watch anyway, was a joy to him. And then college basketball just sort of took off with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and that became, I think, the catalyst for college basketball fans to just go crazy with March Madness.”

Packer played three seasons at Wake Forest, and helped lead the Demon Deacons to the Final Four in 1962, but it was his work as an analyst that brought him the most acclaim.

He joined NBC in 1974 and called his first Final Four in 1975. UCLA beat Kentucky in the title game that year in what was John Wooden’s final game as coach.

Packer was also part of the broadcast in 1979 with Dick Enberg and Al McGuire when Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team beat Larry Bird’s Indiana State squad in the title game. That remains highest-rated game in basketball history with a 24.1 Nielsen rating, which is an estimated 35.1 million viewers.

Packer went to CBS in the fall of 1981, when the network acquired the rights to the NCAA Tournament. He remained the network’s main analyst until the 2008 Final Four.

In 1996 at CBS, Packer was involved in controversy when he used the term “tough monkey? to describe then-Georgetown star Allen Iverson during a game. Packer later said he “was not apologizing for what I said, because what I said has no implications in my mind whatsoever to do with Allen Iverson’s race.?

Sean McManus, the chairman of CBS Sports, said Packer was “synonymous with college basketball for more than three decades and set the standard of excellence as the voice of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.”

“He had a tremendous impact on the growth and popularity of the sport.” McManus said. “In true Billy fashion, he analyzed the game with his own unique style, perspective and opinions, yet always kept the focus on the game. As passionate as he was about basketball, at his heart Billy was a family man. He leaves part of his legacy at CBS Sports, across college basketball and, most importantly, as a beloved husband, father and grandfather. He will be deeply missed by all.”

Packer was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.

ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale took to Twitter as word of Packer’s death spread. “So sad to learn of the passing of Billy Packer who had such a passion for college basketball,” Vitale tweeted. “My (prayers) go out to Billy’s son Mark & the entire Packer family. Always had great RESPECT for Billy & his partners Dick Enberg & Al McGuire-they were super. May Billy RIP.”

College basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla tweeted: “We fell in love (with) college basketball because of you. Your voice will remain in my head forever.”

Packer was viewed as a controversial figure during his broadcasting days, often drawing the ire of college basketball fans, particularly on North Carolina’s “Tobacco Road.”

“As a kid, I was a big NC State fan growing up, and I would watch a game and the next day I’d be like, `Boy you sure have it out for NC State, don’t you?’ And he would just laugh,” Mark Packer said.

The younger Packer, who is the host of ACC PM on the ACC Network, said it didn’t matter what school – most fans felt the same way about his father.

“He would cover North Carolina game and Tar Heels fans would be like, `you hate North Carolina,”‘ Mark Packer said. “Wake (Forest) fans would be like, `you hate us.’ And Billy just sort of got a kick out of that.”

Mark Packer said that while most fans will remember his father as a broadcaster, he’ll remember him even more for his business acumen. He said his father was a big real estate investor, and also owned a vape company, among other ventures.

“Billy was always a bit of a hustler – he was always looking for that next business deal,” Packer said.

Clemson starter Galloway will miss time after surgery

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CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson starter Brevin Galloway is expected to miss games for the 24th-ranked Tigers after having surgery on his groin area Thursday.

The 6-foot-3 Galloway has started 20 of 21 games after transferring from Boston College this past offseason.

Galloway posted on social media that he’d had the surgery. Clemson coach Brad Brownell confirmed in a text to The Associated Press that Galloway had the operation.

Galloway said in his post he will be in uniform soon. He is not expected to play at Florida State on Saturday.

A fifth-year player, Galloway has averaged 10.6 points a game this season. He’s second on the Tigers with 55 assists and 18 steals.

The Tigers (17-4) lead the Atlantic Coast Conference at 9-1 in league play.

Clemson is already down two experienced players due to injury.

Point guard Chase Hunter, who started the team’s first 18 games, has missed the past three with a foot injury.

Guard Alex Hemenway, in his fourth season, has missed the past nine games with a foot injury. Hemenway was the team’s leading 3-point shooter (27 of 54) before getting hurt.

Zach Edey has 19 points, No. 1 Purdue beats Michigan 75-70

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Zach Edey had 15 of his 19 points in the first half and Fletcher Loyer finished with 17 points to help No. 1 Purdue hold off Michigan 75-70 on Thursday night.

The Boilermakers (20-1, 9-1 Big Ten) had a 15-0 run to go ahead 41-28 lead in the first half after there were 10 lead changes and four ties, but they couldn’t pull away.

The Wolverines (11-9, 5-4) were without standout freshman Jett Howard, who missed the game with an ankle injury, and still hung around until the final seconds.

Joey Baker made a 3-pointer – off the glass – with 5.9 seconds left to pull Michigan within three points, but Purdue’s Brandon Newman sealed the victory with two free throws.

Purdue coach Matt Painter said Michigan slowed down Edey in the second half by pushing him away from the basket.

“They got him out a little more, and got him bottled up,” Painter said.

The 7-foot-4 Edey, though, was too tough to stop early in the game.

“He’s one of the best in the country for a reason,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said. “He’s very effective, especially if he’s 8 feet and in.”

With size and skills such as a hook shot, the junior center from Toronto scored Purdue’s first seven points and finished the first half 7 of 12 from the field and 1 of 2 at the line.

“He did a great job in the first half, going to his right shoulder and using his left hand,” Painter said. “He made four baskets with his left hand which is huge.”

Freshman Braden Smith had 10 points for the Boilermakers.

Purdue’s defense ultimately denied Michigan’s comeback hopes, holding a 22nd straight opponent to 70 or fewer points.

Hunter Dickinson scored 21, Kobe Bufkin had 16 points and Baker added 11 points for the Wolverines, who have lost four of their last six games.

Dickinson, a 7-1 center, matched up with Edey defensively and pulled him out of the lane offensively by making 3 of 7 3-pointers.

“Half his shots were from the 3, and that’s a little different,” Painter said. “His meat and potatoes are on that block. He’s the real deal.”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Boilermakers got the top spot in the AP Top 25 this week after winning six games, a stretch that followed a loss to Rutgers on Jan. 3 that dropped them from No. 1 in the poll. Purdue improved to 7-2 as the top-ranked team.

BIG PICTURE

Purdue: Edey can’t beat teams by himself and he’s surrounded by a lot of role players and a potential standout in Loyer. The 6-4 guard was the Big Ten player of the week earlier this month, become the first Boilermaker freshman to win the award since Robbie Hummel in 2008.

“Fletcher is somebody who has played better in the second half, and on the road,” Painter said.

Michigan: Jett Howard’s health is a critical factor for the Wolverines, who will have some work to do over the second half of the Big Ten season to avoid missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. Howard averages 14.6 points and is the most dynamic player on his father’s team.

ROAD WARRIORS

The Boilermakers were away from home for 12 of 23 days, winning all five of their road games. They won at Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan for the first time since the 1997-98 season and beat the Spartans and Wolverines on their home court in the same season for the first time in 12 years.

UP NEXT

Purdue: Hosts Michigan State on Sunday, nearly two weeks after the Boilermakers beat the Spartans by a point on Edey’s shot with 2.2 seconds left.

Michigan: Plays at Penn State on Sunday.

Miller scores 23, No. 10 Maryland tops No. 13 Michigan 72-64

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COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Diamond Miller scored 23 points, and No. 10 Maryland closed the first quarter with a 13-2 run and led the rest of the way in a 72-64 victory over No. 13 Michigan on Thursday night.

Abby Meyers contributed 12 points and 11 rebounds for the Terrapins (17-4, 8-2), who won for the 10th time in 11 games. Lavender Briggs scored 14 points and Shyanne Sellers added 13.

Maryland gained a measure of revenge after losing twice to Michigan last season – including a 20-point rout in College Park.

Leigha Brown led the Wolverines with 16 points.

Michigan (16-5, 6-4) led 13-9 in the first quarter before a three-point play by Miller started Maryland’s big run. Briggs and Faith Masonius made 3-pointers during that stretch.

The Terps pushed the lead to 16 in the third quarter before the Wolverines were able to chip away. Miller sat for a bit with four fouls, and Michigan cut the lead to seven in the fourth quarter, but the Wolverines still wasted too many possessions with turnovers to mount much of a comeback.

Michigan ended up with 24 turnovers, and Maryland had a 25-5 advantage in points off turnovers.

Miller fouled out with 2:19 remaining, but even after those two free throws, the Terps led 65-57 and had little trouble holding on.

Michigan lost for the second time in four days against a top-10 opponent. No. 6 Indiana beat the Wolverines 92-83 on Monday.

BIG PICTURE

Michigan: Whether it was against Maryland’s press or in their half-court offense, the Wolverines turned the ball over too much to score consistently. This was a lower-scoring game than the loss to Indiana, but the margin ended up being similar.

Maryland: While Miller clearly led the way, the Terps had plenty of offensive contributors. They also held Michigan to 13 points below its season average entering the game.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Wolverines have appeared in 48 straight AP polls, and although a two-loss week could certainly drop them, the quality of their opponents could save them from a substantial plunge.

Maryland is tied for 10th with an Iowa team that beat No. 2 Ohio State on Monday night. Now the Terps can boast an impressive victory of their own.

UP NEXT

Michigan: The Wolverines play their third game of the week when they visit Minnesota on Sunday.

Maryland: The Terps host Penn State on Monday night.

 

Boum, Jones lead No. 13 Xavier over No. 19 UConn, 82-79

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STORRS, Conn. – Souley Boum scored 21 points, Colby Jones added 20 and No. 13 Xavier went on the road and held off No. 19 Connecticut 82-79 Wednesday night.

The win was the 13th in 14 games for the Musketeers (17-4, 9-1 Big East) and it gave them a season sweep over the struggling Huskies (16-6, 5-6).

Jack Nunge had 12 points and Jerome Hunter added 11 for Xavier, which led by 17 in the first half and 39-24 at halftime.

Jordan Hawkins scored 26 of his 28 points in the second half for UConn, leading a comeback that fell just short.

Tristen Newton added 23 points for the Huskies, who won their first 14 games this season but have dropped six of eight since.

The Musketeers never trailed but had to withstand UConn runs that cut the lead to a single point four times in the second half.

A three-point play from Hawkins made it 78-77 with 2:40 left. But a second-chance layup from Nunge put the lead at 80-77 just over a minute later.

Newton was fouled with two seconds left by Desmond Claude, but his apparent attempt to miss his second free throw went into the basket.

Boum then hit two free throws at the other end, and Newton’s final attempt from just beyond halfcourt was well short.

Xavier jumped out to a 9-0 lead as UConn missed its first nine shots.

A 3-pointer from Zach Freemantle gave the Musketeers their first double-digit lead at 20-9, and another from Jones pushed it to 35-18.

BIG PICTURE

Xavier: The Musketeers lead the Big East, and the win over UConn was their ninth conference victory this season, eclipsing their total from last season.

UConn: The Huskies came in with a 17-game winning streak at Gampel Pavilion dating to February 2021. They fell to 1-4 against the four teams in front of them in the Big East standings. The lone win came at Gampel against Creighton.

UP NEXT

Xavier: The Musketeers continue their road trip with a visit to Creighton on Saturday.

UConn: Doesn’t play again until next Tuesday, when the Huskies visit DePaul.