Villanova freshman Arcidiacono continues to impress

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Villanova freshman Ryan Arcidiacono, here in action during the 2012 Delco Pro-Am, will start at PG for the Wildcats. (Photo: Mark Jordan)

Andy Edwards (@DLNAndyEdwards)

Villanova head coach Jay Wright has a knack for finding great guards.

His 11 years on the Main Line have largely been marked by one prolific backcourt after another, to which a stretch of seven consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, a Final Four trip, and several professional rosters can attest. Typically, Wright’s guards have trouble cracking the starting lineup as freshmen, frequently pushed down the depth chart by seasoned, often NBA-ready veterans. Villanova fans, however, might remember the last time a Wildcat point guard became a star in his first collegiate season. Wright believes he may have found another.

Ryan Arcidiacono might not make anyone forget about Scottie Reynolds, who averaged a team-high 15.9 points per game as a freshman, led the Wildcats to the Final Four in 2009, and finished 21 points short of the school’s all-time scoring record in four electrifying years at Villanova. But speak to Wright, and it becomes clear that the Wildcats coach loves what he’s seen thus far from the highly-touted product of Neshaminy High School.

“The freshmen are impressive,” Wright said of Arcidiacono and fellow first-year player Dan Ochefu, a 6-foot-9 Westtown High School graduate. “Both of them have shown a maturity and a level of preparedness that is impressive. They’ve picked things up quick. What we’ve talked about before, our core values, kind of come naturally to them. That’s what’s really encouraging. Sometimes kids want to do it, but they come from such a different system that it’s hard. They’ve done really well.”

Others have taken notice. Last Friday, CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein Tweeted that all signs point to Arcidiacono being the starting point guard when the Wildcats open the season on  Nov. 9 against District of Columbia.

“Frosh has the keys to the car on the Main Line,” Rothstein said.

His teammates, in turn, say the player known as ‘Arch’ is ready for the bright lights of the Big East.

“He’s been doing a great job,” said junior Tony Chennault, a transfer from Wake Forest who appears to be a lock for the other starting guard spot. “He’s real mature for a freshman. You don’t find freshmen quite like him, just his basketball savviness and willingness to learn. He’s always working hard, staying in and getting shots up. He’s another one of the leaders of the team.”

The confidence and trust from his teammates and coaches is impressive, considering where Arcidiacono was at this time a year ago. A back injury requiring surgery forced him to miss his entire senior season at Neshaminy, for whom he averaged 20.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 5.0 assists per game as a junior. The state’s second-ranked recruit behind only Friends Central’s Amile Jefferson, who signed with Duke, Arcidiacono received offers from several national powers, including Florida, Notre Dame, and West Virginia before electing to stay in state and don the blue and white. Almost a year removed from his surgery, the freshman is back to full strength and ready to show it on the court.

“I feel 100 percent,” he told CoBL before practice Wednesday. “During the summertime, I had to get my conditioning back a little bit, but mid-summer I got back to my normal self…I haven’t felt any back pain since the surgery. Everything is going well.

“Sitting out all of last year just made me realize how much I missed the game and need to be a part of it, so I’m just ready to roll. I had a good summer, and the team is looking good. I’m feeling good and I’m ready to roll.”

Armed with a silky shot and the handle to match, Arcidiacono is an ideal fit for Wright’s guard-centric system. After an impressive summer in the Delco Pro-Am League, speculation mounted that the Bucks County native might play his way into the starting lineup immediately. For the past few weeks, that speculation seems to have been put to rest. His starting status won’t be confirmed until next Thursday’s exhibition opener against Carleton, but Arcidiacono said he is ready for the expectations that come with being a recruit of his stature and willing to do whatever it takes to win- whether he starts or not.

“Definitely there’s a little pressure, but I’m just playing my game and doing whatever Coach says,” Arcidiacono said. “I’ll do whatever; if I come off the bench or I start, it doesn’t matter as long as we win the game. That’s all that matters to me.”

With a strengthened frontcourt and plenty of options in the backcourt, the Wildcats are confident winning will be a more frequent occurrence this season than last year, when Villanova stumbled to a 13-19 mark, the worst in Wright’s tenure. Chennault started 30 games for the Demon Deacons a year ago, and sophomore Ty Johnson earned a nice chunk of court time behind current Philadelphia 76er Maalik Wayns last season. Wright also expects improvement from sophomores Darrun Hilliard and Achraf Yacoubou. On paper, the pieces are there. Now it’s about translating it to the court.

“Tony, Ty, or me, we can all bring up the ball and we can all shoot,” Arcidiacono told CoBL. “We can really space out the floor, roll and drive and kick for threes to Darrun and Ach, anything like that. I think we’re doing well, and we definitely have some depth at the guard position.”

Last year’s squad had no shortage of weaknesses. One of the most prominent, however, was shot selection. The Wildcats ranked dead last in the Big East in shooting at 41.2 percent, and 14th in three-point marksmanship (31.5%). Part of that can be attributed to Wayns, who was fourth in the conference in scoring but often was forced to shoulder too much of the Wildcats’ offensive burden. This year, Villanova expects a more balanced attack and, in turn, fewer turnovers and higher-quality shots.

“I think we’re improving as far as our shot selection,” Arcidiacono said. “We can definitely do a little bit better, but we’re all unselfish players and we want each other to score. We want everyone to get their numbers, but it starts at the defensive end.”

Of late, Wright has spoken at length about playing ‘Villanova basketball,’ returning to the ‘core values’ that took the program to such great heights in the past. Arcidiacono has yet to play his first game as a Wildcat, but the freshman understands what he and his teammates need to do to put last season behind them.

“Get back to playing hard and playing together,” he told CoBL. “That’s the first thing we need to do. We need to get back to that and be the toughest team in the Big East.”

Wright said Wednesday that he likes what he’s seen from his squad to this point, a week removed from the exhibition opener. The challenge, he said, is to take the good habits formed in practice onto the court in game situations. Arcidiacono expressed many of the same sentiments. Having missed a year of competition, the challenge is even more important for him. So, what can Villanova fans expect to see next week?

“Hopefully a team that’s playing hard and playing together, no matter the result,” Arcidiacono said. “We obviously want to win, but as long as we’re getting better and playing hard together we’ll be good.”

As for himself, Arcidiacono just wants to play. The rest, he said, will take care of itself.

“I’m just going to play hard and do whatever Coach says,” Arcidiacono said. “Whatever happens from there, happens.”

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