This story originally appears in the April 4, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
A perfect-world NCAA tournament bracket for Villanova would have kept the Wildcats in Philadelphia as the No. 1 seed in the East region, playing de facto home games on their part-time home court, the Wells Fargo Center, for the right to go to the Final Four. On Friday evening of the Sweet 16, when coach Jay Wright watched the telecasts of the teams that did get assigned to Philly—North Carolina and Indiana, Notre Dame and Wisconsin—he did not enjoy them. “Seeing teams on our court, celebrating,” Wright said, was like watching “somebody messing around with your wife: It hurt.” Despite finishing 29–5 and winning the Big East regular-season title, Wright’s team was banished to Louisville as the South region’s No. 2, behind the top overall seed, Kansas, a team that hadn’t lost since Jan. 25. But by late Saturday, Wright no longer felt any pain: The bracket’s biggest losers had conquered the South, upsetting the Jayhawks 64–59 in the Elite Eight, and Villanova improvised an intimate party.
At 12:46 a.m. on Easter Sunday, the players from one of the last two Catholic schools left in the tournament walked off their bus and paraded through the second-floor lobby of Louisville’s historic Brown Hotel, which was packed with a few hundred Wildcats fans chanting, “Let’s go, ‘No-va!” The players parted the sea of supporters, high-fiving their way to the elevators and eventually up to the 16th floor, where their families were gathered in a tiny lounge. The biggest clan, from the Philly suburb of Langhorne, was waiting for senior point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, whose 22nd birthday had just concluded—his mother, Patti, and father, Joe, who met as ‘Nova students; and siblings Nicole, Michael, Christopher and Courtney. They’d had their chance to sing “Happy Birthday” to Ryan 90 minutes earlier, while he stood on a podium with his teammates, holding the South Regional trophy.
Arcidiacono had forbidden his family from celebrating his birthday before the game against the Jayhawks—even when he visited their 13th-floor hotel room and lounged on the bed with his brothers and sisters, watching ESPN analysts pick against the Wildcats. “Ryan didn’t want us to say anything about it this morning,” Patti said. “I’m like, can I give you a birthday kiss at least? He said, ‘Mom, all I want is to win.’”
“I decided to treat it as a normal game day,” Arcidiacono said early Sunday morning. “I wasn’t even having fun, because I was like, this is going to suck if ...” His voice trailed off. Those last two words—we lose—were no longer a possibility, but can you blame him for being cautious after three straight early-round losses in the tournament?
In the Wildcats’ 92–69 Sweet 16 win over Miami, they drew comparisons to the Warriors, and not just because stretch-four Kris Jenkins hit a Curry-like bomb from the midcourt logo. ‘Nova scored 1.56 points per possession, the highest single-game efficiency in this tournament, and Hurricanes coach Jim Larrañaga felt as if his team had been struck by lightning. “[Villanova is] just an incredible offensive team,” he said. “We had no way to stop them.”
The Wildcats knew they couldn’t count on shooting that well against Kansas, and so senior center Daniel Ochefu said the plan “was to turn the game into a street fight.” They held the Jayhawks to their second-lowest efficiency of the season (0.91 PPP) and their star power forward, Perry Ellis, to just four points after he’d scored 27 in the Sweet 16 against Maryland. Villanova’s rotating cast of mostly undersized defenders—Jenkins, freshman Mikal Bridges, Ochefu, even Arcidiacono—did, Ellis said, “a great job of just trying to swarm me.” Villanova’s scoring was also a group effort. Arcidiacono, Jenkins and Josh Hart each had 13 points, Ochefu had 10, and even the net-cutting process was egalitarian.
At around 1 p.m. on Saturday, Wright added a final line to the sheet on which he’d handwritten his play-calls for the KU game: “If we win,” it said, “have the last be first.” He wanted one more symbol, for an overachieving team with no true star, that everyone on the roster was the same, and thus the final snips of the net—typically reserved for an MVP—were made by senior walk-on Henry Lowe, who played zero minutes against the Jayhawks. Arcidiacono, one of the team’s co-captains, was fine with not owning the net. “This is already,” he said, “the best birthday present ever.”
After Arcidiacono finally turned his iPhone back on following the game, the texts began flowing in a waterfall-like blur, around 175 in all. His phone’s lock-screen photo was of the Wildcats celebrating their 2015 Big East tournament title—until Saturday, the only time he’d lifted a major trophy in college. Arcidiacono glanced at the picture and then said, “I think I can change this now.”