Top seeds advance, to meet in Elite Eight
4:26 | College Basketball
Top seeds advance, to meet in Elite Eight
Friday March 25th, 2016

Get all of Zac Ellis’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.

LOUISVILLE — A gradual indoctrination into Villanova fandom took place early in Ryan Arcidiacono’s life, and it’s easy to see why. Growing up in Langhorne, Pa., a suburb of Bucks County situated a half-hour northeast of Philadelphia, Arcidiacono is the third youngest of six children to Patti and Joe Arcidiacono, two fervent Villanova supporters. Both parents attended the university, with Joe having played offensive line on the Wildcats’ football team from 1976 to ’80.

Most early Villanova-flavored memories remain etched in Arcidiacono’s mind, the bulk of which took place in front of a TV screen. “I always watched the Elite Eight teams, the Sweet 16—the Final Four [in 2009], of course,” Arcidiacono said. In January 2005, a 10-year-old Arcidiacono even braved a massive snowstorm to watch his Wildcats take on an undefeated and No. 2-ranked Kansas in person in Philadelphia. The risk was worth it: Unranked Villanova stunned the Jayhawks, 83–62.

Arcidiacono long fantasized about suiting up for the Villanova program he so passionately followed. That dream, now realized, has perhaps never felt more real than it did on Thursday night, when he helped author his own chapter in Wildcats history. Arcidiacono, a senior guard, and his No. 2-ranked roster ripped through No. 3 Miami, 92–69, in one of the most complete performances of the NCAA tournament. As a result, the Wildcats head into the Elite Eight for the first time since 2009, a welcome sight for a power program longing for another deep run into March.

Arcidiacono, playing in his final NCAA tournament, wants to keep that run alive for as long as possible. “I’ve always dreamed of something like this,” he said.

John Flavell/AP

On Thursday, the guard played like a senior unwilling to end his college career, spearheading Villanova’s remarkable performance. The Wildcats shot a season-high 66.7% (10 of 15) on three-pointers and scored 18 points off 12 Hurricane turnovers. They led by as many as 15 points in the first half alone, and even though Miami managed to chisel the lead to one, Villanova entered the break leading 43–37. Its 43 points were the most given up by Miami in a first half this season. Arcidiacono chipped in 13 of them.

A unique spark from an upperclassman, one who so desperately wants to lead Villanova to a title, did nothing to surprise head coach Jay Wright. “I haven’t got to talk to [Arcidiacono] about it yet,” Wright said, “but I’m sure he thought, ‘O.K., we’re here in the Sweet 16. I’m a senior. I’m going to make sure we get going the right way.’”

College Basketball
Hield on epic journey from humble means to brink of Final Four

Behind Arcidiacono, Villanova poured on the offense in the second half. It led by as many as 25 points and finished a remarkable 18 of 19 from the foul line. The senior guard hit four of his seven three-point attempts and finished with 21 points along with four assists. “When you have guys that are making shots like Ryan, and defending like Ryan, and just doing everything he’s doing as a senior, it really makes things easier on the rest of us,” said junior forward Darryl Reynolds, who finished with eight points and five rebounds.

Villanova’s well-documented futility in March weighed heavily on Arcidiacono’s mind as his team entered March. The Wildcats had not advanced past the second round of the NCAA tournament in any of his first three seasons. The program’s last two tourney losses probably stung the worst: In 2014, No. 7 Connecticut (the eventual national champion) upset No. 2 Villanova in the Round of 32. A year later, a top-ranked Wildcats squad suffered an unceremonious defeat at the hands of No. 8 NC State in the second round. Fair or not, postseason failure has come to define the most recent years of Wright’s lengthy tenure at Villanova, which had failed to capitalize on high-seeded opportunities.

STAFF: What you need to know about every team in the Sweet 16

A chance to reverse the Wildcats’ tournament fortune and finally taste the Sweet 16 at the close of his college career had fueled Arcidiacono’s final trip to the Big Dance. “Those last couple of early exits,” he said, “weren’t the best thing for our program.” Now, few would question Villanova’s bona fides after a trio of convincing victories in the tournament. It’s won its last three games by an average of 24 points, and it’s done so with balance. On Thursday, four Wildcats scored in double-figures for the 22nd time this season, indicative of a well-rounded squad that appears near-unstoppable when playing to its potential.

College Basketball
No. 1 Oregon pulls away from No. 4 Duke for Elite Eight berth

By now, it’s no secret that Arcidiacono is often a catalyst of Villanova’s success. The scrappy 6'3", 195-pounder has surpassed his season scoring average (12.0 points per game) in each of Villanova’s three wins in the tournament. Yet his sharpshooting isn’t what impresses most of his Wildcat teammates; it’s a relentless defense that serves as a foundation for his team’s potent offense. “The way he brings it on the defensive end, it’s unbelievable,” said redshirt freshman Mikal Bridges, who added four points and three boards off the bench. “All the young guys, that gets us going. When I see him play hard, and he’s a senior, and I’m a freshman, I know I have to step it up.”

Arcidiacono has evolved into Mr. Villanova. The senior has now appeared in 141 career games for the Wildcats, more than any other player in program history. But even amid the pomp and circumstance of Villanova’s first Sweet 16 victory in seven seasons, Arcidiacono couldn’t help but inject reality into the moment.

“This isn’t our ultimate goal, getting to the Elite Eight,” Arcidiacono said. “We’re trying to win it all.”

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Indeed, Villanova’s victory on Thursday keeps it very much alive in the NCAA tournament. And as is often the case in March, its next game stands as its most important of the season: A date on Saturday, which happens to be Arcidiacono’s 22nd birthday, with No. 1 overall seed Kansas, which beat No. 5 Maryland, 79–63, in Thursday’s second game. The euphoria surrounding the Wildcats’ Sweet 16 success will quickly disappear with a loss to the daunting Jayhawks. But with a win, Villanova would book a trip to Houston for the Final Four and keep Arcidiacono’s career alive.

The senior doesn’t know what lies ahead, but on Thursday night, as Arcidiacono rested in front of his locker, he cracked a smile when asked a simple question: Is this the most fun you’ve had playing basketball? “It has to be,” Arcidiacono said. “It’s been a great ride.”

Villanova's ride isn’t over yet. Arcidiacono’s latest dream is to keep it rolling.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.