Just a freshman, Ryan Arcidiacono has already fit right into Villanova program to become Wildcats' natural leader. (Photo courtesy of VUHoops.com)
If you were to run into him anywhere else but a basketball court, Ryan Arcidiacono would strike you as a typical 18-year-old young man: Youthful, laid-back, and down to earth. When you see the Villanova freshman point guard on the hardwood, though, a few different adjectives come to mind: Determined, competitive, resilient.
Both groups of words ultimately defined Arcidiacono, not just after last night's 66-53 victory over St. John's in the Wildcats' Big East Tournament opener, but also for the season as well; a freshman campaign on the Main Line that saw the homegrown talent average over twelve points and three assists per game on his way to unanimous Big East All-Rookie honors.
"We have the benefit of a freshman coming in who knows the history and knows what we want," Villanova head coach Jay Wright said shortly after Arcidiacono posted a 15-point, 6-rebound, 5-assist performance that helped guide the Wildcats past Steve Lavin and the Red Storm, who were playing without suspended leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison. "He grew up watching Villanova basketball his whole life, so he knows how we play and what we're looking for."
Whatever Wright was looking for when he recruited Arcidiacono out of Neshaminy High School two years ago, he found all of it, and a whole lot more, even a rare display of honesty when it came to his own self-assessment as a player.
"Yeah, eight turnovers," Arcidiacono remarked after last night's game when his statistics were brought up in the locker room, not shying away from a topic most players would normally try to avoid. "I was a little sloppy with the ball, especially in the second half. Against their (St. John's) pressure, I kind of left my feet a couple of times. I think I had to score a little bit more. Honestly, I felt like my shots were really good tonight. They just weren't falling."
Just two weeks away from his nineteenth birthday, Arcidiacono's refreshing display of candor and openness to embrace moments of weakness prove just how gifted he is both on and off the court, returning from back surgery that sacrificed his entire senior season in high school to give his new coach the proven leader at the point guard position that has become a Villanova tradition over the years.
"He's aggressive," said Wright of his rookie sensation. "He'll make mistakes, but they don't bother him. Scottie Reynolds was like that, and we've had a lot of great freshman guards. Mike Nardi always wanted to be perfect, and when he wasn't, it would devastate him."
Several college basketball pundits have already likened the young Arcidiacono to Nardi, but Ryan's style and game are in fact more reminiscent of Drew Neitzel, the former Michigan State point guard who led the Spartans to a Final Four as a freshman in 2005. All comparisons aside, what sets Arcidiacono apart is his ability to put his efforts in perspective for one minute, then suddenly flip a switch and become the charismatic, wide-eyed kid whose magnetic personality gives off a positive aura almost incessantly.
"It was crazy," he said in regard to his Big East Tournament debut, which marked his return to Madison Square Garden for the first time since November's 2K Classic. "I think I was a little too amped up in the first half, it kind of got to me, but any game at the Garden's a lot of fun, especially Big East Tournament games."
From there, the freshman floor general proceeded to give a detailed breakdown of last night's game and preview of tonight's quarterfinal contest against Louisville that even the most qualified of network studio analysts would have a hard time replicating if they were reading from a script in front of them."
"When we played Louisville the first time, (a game Villanova won at the Wells Fargo Center) it was kind of a breakthrough game for us," Arcidiacono intimated. "We stuck to Villanova basketball. We beat them the first time, but they're going to want us. We're just going to have to come out and be strong with the ball, because Louisville pressures a lot."
Along with sophomores JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard, Villanova has a talented young nucleus that draws several parallels to the Wildcat team of 2007-08, a group that reached the Sweet Sixteen despite its relative inexperience. The main difference between the two squads is that while the 2008 Wildcats did not have a senior on the roster, this year's unit has two in Maurice Sutton and Mouphtaou Yarou, the latter of whom led the way with 18 points as Villanova defeated St. John's to advance their postseason run.
"We have great them chemistry, we really do," said Arcidiacono. "I didn't even realize he (Yarou) was 9-for-10. He was just beasting in the first half."
However, on this night, just as much credit deserved to go to the first-year player who; although only on this stage for four months, has been playing like he has been there for four years.
"He plays like a talented freshman," Jay Wright said, "but he's got the mindset of a senior. Our guys look to him, he's a leader."
Arcidiacono closed his postgame recollections with another equally insightful quote to join the several others he dished out as if they were assists on the floor:
"There was a point where I said to myself 'I have to control this game,' he said intently. "I'm just glad that we won."
So is Villanova and its fans, in more ways than one.