By Joseph Santoliquito
Villanova, PA (CBS) — Ryan Arcidiacono refuses to go back to those days, which really aren’t that long ago, when he sat there in a doctor’s office and was told he’d have to watch basketball instead of play.
The gifted 6-foot-3 Villanova freshman point guard can’t remember a time when he wasn’t playing basketball. Now this, as tears welled up in his eyes, and for a millisecond a flash of fear crossed his mind. It’s going to be taken away, he thought. No more basketball, no more thrill of gliding through a maze of outstretched arms and coming out on the other end with a layup.
He can’t see it. That’s good, because Arcidiacono doesn’t accept it happened. Like refusing to accept his game-changing ability was over after undergoing herniated disc surgery last December that left an inch-long vertical scar at the base of his back.
The same Arcidiacono that terrorized the Suburban One League and District 1 is now ripping through major college programs, as the Wildcats’ leading scorer, averaging 16.3 points a game, and 18 assists in igniting Villanova to a surprising 3-1 start.
Arcidiacono is bigger and sturdier than when he played at Neshaminy, his unbending mindset still intact, perhaps even stronger after the ordeal of sitting out his senior year of high school.
That’s what makes Arcidiacono’s comeback so amazing. After sitting out over a year, he’s the starting point for a perennial Philadelphia—and national—power and doing incredibly well. Beyond anyone’s expectations, except maybe his own.
It doesn’t surprise Wildcats coach Jay Wright, who’s had no problems piling responsibility on his young freshman guard. The only think lacking is physical maturity, which will come in time.
“What’s so amazing is not that he’s a freshman, but it is that he didn’t play at all last year, it’s like Ryan’s a senior in high school playing college basketball,” Wright said. “Ryan’s been great. His attitude’s been great. I do think, not because of his back, but because he’s a freshman, he played 39 minutes in our overtime game against Purdue. I think he was physically affected the next day more than everybody. Purdue played three different guys on him and picked him up full court for 39 minutes. Alabama came in and did the same thing. I think, physically, him being freshman, he was kind of worn down and that affects us more than any other position, because he’s so important to us.”
Arcidiacono led Villanova with a game-high 25 points in the Wildcats’ 80-68 victory over Marshall, and scored 18, including nailing two clutch free throws, in Villanova’s 89-81 overtime victory over Purdue, when he played a time-high 39 minutes.
But some inexperience and freshman fatigue has also surfaced, too. That became apparent against Alabama, when Arcidiacono shot 3-for-11 in a 77-55 loss to the Crimson Tide.
“As a freshman, he did this in our game against Alabama, he tries to take games over himself, but I told him after the game we have to learn to get better and I would much rather him be that kind of player than me having to talk to him about having confidence in taking over,” Wright said. “I love his confidence. Scottie Reynolds was the same way as a freshman. Scottie Reynolds has a record for nine turnovers in a game, but only because he wouldn’t stop after the second or third turnover. He just kept coming, and coming. I think Arch will be the same kind of kid. I think he’ll have some bad nights, but his bad nights will be from trying to do too much, and I like that.”
Arcidiacono’s tenacity was tested around this time last year. Shooting pain down his left hamstring caused him to see a doctor to find out what was wrong. Doctors found it was a herniated disk that caused the discomfort, and eventually told the injury would require surgery.
“I don’t remember missing any games because of an injury,” Arcidiacono recalled. “One day my back started hurting and I kept playing and playing, and my back started to get progressively worse. I had trouble sleeping, but there were definitely some nights I couldn’t go to sleep because of the pain. There were some terrible nights.”
Getting back was an arduous task that challenged him. He never missed a rehab session. Gradually, he rebuilt his core strength and is stronger—gaining a good 15, 20 pounds.
“There were a few teary nights, because I used to think worst-case scenario of not getting back,” Ryan said. “My head was all over the place when this happened. I trusted the doctor’s word that I would be able to get back. We were told in September, October, and the surgery occurred in December. I looked at the positive side. I had to keep thinking I was going to come back.”
After the surgery, the throbbing pain was gone. Arcidiacono could play the way he used to play, stepping by defenders, pulling up and nailing jumpers, or finding a teammate cutting to the basket with a blind pass.
“I think this whole experience taught me that I can overcome anything,” Arcidiacono said. “It tested me, I had to stay strong-minded. The fear flashed fast, but today, I never think about my back injury. To me, I never had back surgery. When people ask how my back is doing, I ask, ‘What back?’ The surgery never honestly took place. I had some doubts, but I found out I was strong enough to get through it and get back to where I was.”
What’s scary is Arcidiacono is even better.
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.