VILLANOVA, Pa. — It was love at first sight. Coach Jay Wright saw Ryan Arcidiacono playing point guard for Neshaminy High School north of Philadelphia and knew beyond question that he had found the paragon for everything Villanova basketball represented.
Four years later, Wright can say without equivocation that Arcidiacono has earned a place among the school’s all-time greats, not based on his modest statistics so much as a reflection of his credo: “Play for those who came before you.” Wright named Arcidiacono a team captain as a freshman, and his faith was rewarded by three Big East regular-season championships culminating with the school’s first Final Four berth since 2009.
“If you’re a high school coach and you’re watching Villanova, and you see Ryan Arcidiacono still diving on the floor in a game where you’re up 20 and playing defense, you think, that’s what I better do,” Wright said as the Wildcats prepared to face Oklahoma in the national semifinals on Saturday in Houston. “That’s what we’re going to miss.”
Wright explained that Arcidiacono grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, as a Villanova fan. His parents both attended the school, and his father played football for the Wildcats. “He was like a kid in Alabama growing up wanting to play for Alabama football,” Wright said.
After guiding Hofstra to the NCAA Tournament in 2000 and 2001, Wright moved to Villanova and quickly built a premier program that has reached the NCAA Tournament 11 of the past 12 seasons. It was as if Arcidiacono understood everything Wright required before he put on the uniform.
“He had it coming in,” Wright said. “I watched him in high school, and he was diving on loose balls, diving in the stands, playing defense even though he was the leading scorer. I said, ‘This is a dream.’ ”
Arcidiacono knew the way to “earn your stripes” was to play defense, rebound and give yourself over to the team work ethic. “Once I came into school, I earned his trust on the floor, and I think I did that pretty quickly with just diving all over the place, taking charges,” Arcidiacono said.
Wright has described their relationship as one in which Arcidiacono virtually channels the coach’s will on the floor. They can read each other’s look, a gesture, and understand.
“We never really talk that much,” Arcidiacono said. “We just understand where we both want each other’s heads to be. I know what he’s going to say all the time. If I mess up in practice, he always just says, ‘Arch,’ and looks at me. I know what he’s doing. We just have a great relationship.”
The beauty of this season, aside from the Final Four berth, is that Wright has found Arcidiacono’s replacement and Arcidiacono knows he has a worthy successor in freshman guard Jalen Brunson. The son of Rick Brunson, who played at Temple and labored nine seasons in the NBA with eight teams, including the Knicks, Jalen grew up admiring Villanova basketball. He connected with Arcidiacono as a kindred soul on his recruiting visit.
“I don’t know why,” Brunson said. “I just knew Ryan was a hard worker, and I knew Ryan had the same intentions. He wants to win no matter what. So do I. On this team, everyone just wants to win and play for each other and keep this tradition alive.”
Arcidiacono and Brunson are roommates on road trips, and the senior said he considers himself both a brother and a mentor to the freshman. Brunson knows he’s in line for Arcidiacono’s leadership role, but he’s in no hurry.
“The way he’s been leading is something I want to do when he leaves,” Brunson said. “But I’m so focused on this week, I don’t really want to think about Ryan graduating because we’ve had such a great relationship.”
As a coach, Wright just knows he’s lucky to have two gifted leaders with one passing the baton to the other. “Jalen told me that, when the Final Four was on last year, they would text and he told Arch, ‘We’ve got to do that next year,’ ” Wright said.
“They have their own unique relationship. Before we made decisions this year, Arch said, ‘I’ll play off the ball. Let Jalen [handle it].’ They’re so close. Jalen is as unselfish and old school as Arch. We’re very fortunate.”