This feature is part of VICE Sports' March Madness coverage.
Villanova has probably not played a less meaningful basketball game than the one against Carleton University on November 1, 2012. Carleton is a major program—in Canada, where the school is located. It was the Wildcats' first and only preseason exhibition that season, and the stands at the on-campus Pavilion were far from filled.
No one would have blamed Ryan Arcidiacono, then in his freshman year at Villanova, if he were to take the game lightly. After all, the point guard had undergone back surgery to repair a herniated disk the previous December, which wiped out his entire senior season at Neshaminy High School. He'd only recently returned to the court, and had sat out Villanova's intrasquad scrimmage five days earlier with a sprained ankle.
Still, Arcidiacono had no interest in coasting. With 13:26 remaining, he deflected a pass with his right hand, dove headfirst out of bounds to save the ball, and knocked over two Gatorade buckets next to the Carleton bench. A few teammates helped Arcidiacono get up from the floor. On the video he shot of the game, Joe Arcidiacono, Ryan's father, says, "She's having a heart attack, Mom is having a heart attack."
Four years later, those hustle plays have become Arcidiacono's trademark. At last weekend's Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden, he jumped over the courtside media table at least three times trying to keep the ball in play. Arcidiacono is much more than a runty try-hard, and he has come a long way from his first obliterated Gatorade cooler. Now a senior, he is the only player in Villanova's storied history with at least 1,500 points, 500 assists, and 300 rebounds in a career. He's also the only four-time captain in Jay Wright's 22 years as a head coach, the last 15 of which have been spent at Villanova.
When the No. 2 seed Wildcats face 15th-seeded UNC-Asheville in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday afternoon, Arcidiacono will play in his 139th college game, tying a Villanova record. He has started each of those games, which is already a school record. The Wildcats have won more than 80 percent of their games with Arcidiacono on the court, and have tallied at least 29 victories in each of the past three seasons; a win on Friday would be the team's 30th this season.
Arcidiacono, who grew up 30 miles from Villanova's campus in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, couldn't have scripted a much better college experience, save for a few postseason disappointments and the aforementioned courtside property damage. His parents are both Villanova alums—they met as undergraduates—who instilled in him an appreciation for the school and the program. He even attended Wright's summer camp as a kid.
To this day, he vividly recalls Villanova moments from his childhood, especially the Wildcats' Final Four run in 2009. During the East Regional final that season, guard Scottie Reynolds caught the ball near half-court, took four dribbles, and scored over a Pittsburgh defender on a drive with 0.5 seconds left, clinching the Wildcats' 78-76 victory. "I remember running up and down the hall when Scottie hit that shot," said Arcidiacono, who is averaging 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game this year. "It's just unbelievable to be able to play for Villanova."
Wright never wavered in naming Arcidiacono a captain in January of his freshman year, although the coach admits now that he wasn't always so high on Arcidiacono as a player. Even as Arcidiacono became a major prospect and people in the area told Wright that Arcidiacono had strong Villanova roots, Wright needed some convincing. "I didn't want to take a local kid that I didn't think was going to really be good," he says now. "I was hesitating, hesitating. When I was hesitating, [former Florida coach] Billy Donovan and other guys were going hard. We almost lost him. Then, once we made the decision—'This kid, this is the real deal'—then we went hard after him. But we almost didn't get it done."
As Wright got to know Arcidiacono better, he realized the two were similar in so many ways. Like Arcidiacono, Wright was raised in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and he was also a huge Villanova fan as a kid. The two became closer following Arcidiacono's back surgery in December 2011, a month after he signed a letter of intent to play at Villanova.
"Jay Wright was great through the whole process," says Joe Arcidiacono, a former offensive lineman at Villanova and team captain as a senior in 1980. "He said if Ryan Arch never plays basketball again, he still has his scholarship, which only solidified our decision for him to go there."
As Arcidiacono sat out his senior season at Neshaminy while recovering from the injury, he attended numerous Villanova games and a few practices. That enthusiasm hasn't waned over the years. "He's honored to put on a Villanova uniform every time, even now," Wright said. "There are other guys, when they first get here, they think Villanova should be honored that they're putting on the uniform. They learn when they're here. But most guys think the school should be honored. He's a senior and one of the best players ever, and he still respects playing for Villanova."
Arcidiacono is so enamored with the school and such a popular figure that he's already planning his long-term goal. "I always joke to people that I'm going to be the head coach at Villanova in like 20, 25 years," he said. "I'll try to. We'll see what happens."
For all Arcidiacono has accomplished at the school, though, he has also experienced some crushing defeats. The Wildcats were upset in the second round of the NCAA tournament in each of the past two seasons, first as a No. 2 seed in 2014 and then as a No. 1 seed in 2015. Arcidiacono didn't help the cause last March, scoring four points on 2-of-8 shooting in the 71-68 loss to North Carolina State that ended their season.
This season, for three weeks back in February, Villanova was ranked first in the country for the first time in school history; they won the Big East regular season title for the third consecutive season. The Wildcats are a sturdy, star-free team, but they're good—they're fifth in the KenPom.com advanced analytics ratings, 11th in adjusted offensive efficiency, and seventh in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Still, the Wildcats enter the NCAA tournament coming off a 69-67 loss to Seton Hall in the Big East final on Saturday night. During a nine-second stretch early in that game, Arcidiacono made a three-pointer, stole the ball, and drove down the court for a layup. He didn't score in the remaining 37 minutes, though, and air-balled a desperation three-pointer with three defenders in his face as time expired. Later, Arcidiacono sat at his locker with an ice pack on his lower back, but he said he felt fine and wasn't complaining about any contact.
"I just didn't get a clean grip on the ball," he said. "I just had to chuck it up."
The scene was much different a year ago, when the Wildcats won the Big East championship and celebrated on the same floor and in the same locker room. "You enjoy winning, but this is life, man," Wright said. "You've got to deal with this. We failed. I always tell these guys, there's nothing wrong with failure, man. There's nothing wrong with failure."
After Villanova's press conference on Saturday night, Wright put his arm around Arcidiacono's shoulder. They walked side by side down a quiet hallway, just the two of them, for a few minutes.
"I was thinking that's the last time in Madison Square Garden I'm ever going to do that with him and last time in Big East play I'm ever going to do that with him," Wright said. "I always walk with my wife. I just said to her, 'Do you mind if I go with Arch?' She said, 'Go ahead, go ahead.' I wanted to spend that time with him."
Now it's on to the NCAA tournament, the site of so much angst in recent years. Arcidiacono is determined to lead the Wildcats to the second weekend for the first time since that 2009 team that he rooted for as a high school freshman advanced all the way to the Final Four. A deep run would be a storybook ending for the local kid, but with the nation's top team (Kansas) in the same South Regional as Villanova, it won't be easy. No matter how it turns out, the Arcidiacono family is intent on relishing the last few days, or weeks, of a career that few could have expected.
"It's sad, but it's also been an amazing four-year run," Joe Arcidiacono said. "We're going to look back forever and say this is some of the happiest times in our family's life." It makes sense that they want to make it last.