How a loss three years ago still motivates Villanova

Senior Ryan Arcidiacono is one of the few Wildcats who has first-hand experience with playing for a struggling Villanova team.

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Look at Villanova. It’s rolling: 16-2, the top team in the RPI rankings, the top team in KenPom.com’s rankings, fourth in the AP Poll. If the season ended today you could make an easy case that the Wildcats should be an NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed for the second straight year.

If you look at where Jay Wright’s program stands these days, you could assume it’s always been there, secure in its spot among the bluebloods of college basketball.

But Ryan Arcidiacono, the senior guard who is the heart and soul of this team, can remember the moment during his freshman year when this program seemed to bottom out – a moment he now credits as the one that turned Villanova into the powerhouse it is today.

“I remember it, yeah,” the point guard said. “After the game, I literally wanted to punch something.”

In sports, it can be hard to pinpoint the day when a team or a program turned things around. Seasons and careers are not straight lines; they are filled with ups and downs, easy stretches and bumps in the road. For Arcidiacono’s Villanova squad, though, it’s easy: Nov. 20, 2012, two days before Thanksgiving.

Columbia, an Ivy League squad that would go on to a losing season, was coming to The Pavilion that night. It was a game that Villanova was supposed to win easily. It did not. The Wildcats turned the ball over 16 times. The Villanova guards – the guys from Guard U – couldn’t handle Columbia’s lesser backcourt. The Wildcats made three of 17 three-pointers, and Arcidiacono was 1-for-8.

It was an oh-crap moment: A year after Villanova had stumbled to an ugly 13-19 season, this underclassmen-dominated team had suffered one of the worst home losses in Wright’s tenure. Thanksgiving 2012 was not a holiday of rest; it was a holiday of getting back in the gym and fixing what looked like a foundering program.

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“I wasn’t used to losing,” Arcidiacono said years later. “We were so frustrated. My teammates were like, ‘You gotta let it go.’ But I couldn’t. I wanted to get back in the gym right away. And that was the turning point. It was a reality check for everyone: ‘We’re not that good.’ So we got back to practice. And that was the hardest-working team to have a 20-14 record that I’ve ever been a part of.”

It’s a good time to look back to the past at Villanova, as this is the 10th anniversary of the team that won the Big East regular-season title and went to the Elite Eight in 2006. In the age of one-and-dones, college basketball has a short memory. And the recruiting class that came in the year after Arcidiacono only knows winning. Juniors like Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins have lost only 10 games in their two and a half seasons at Villanova. Every cliché about a well-coached basketball team is true with the Wildcats: They’re tough, they’re scrappy, they play all 40 minutes, they dive for loose balls. They’re winners.

But toughness is not something that comes out of nowhere. It’s forged in the difficult moments of life, on and off the basketball court. In a very real sense, the aftermath of that one awful loss by a young team made Villanova basketball into the consistently tough, always-grinding top-10 power it has been the past three seasons.

“That was a pivotal game for us,” Wright said. “Players think it just happens. But that game shocked all our guys into realizing that just putting on the Nova uniform is not enough. It doesn’t just happen. We’re going to have to fight and scrape to make that happen.”

The game was humiliating, but humility proved useful. The game saw this program underachieve, but the Wildcats realized they had to work to become overachievers.

Even this season, Wright still brings up that Columbia loss in team meetings. Arcidiacono and fellow senior Daniel Ochefu bring up that Columbia loss in practices. They talk to their younger teammates about it: You gotta work for every win, they say.

“It’s something we use as motivation,” Ochefu said. “It just means anything can happen, that nothing is a given. We felt good about ourselves, and we got humbled really quickly.”

Slowly, things changed. That team sneaked into the NCAA Tournament as a nine-seed. The next year, the Wildcats won their first 11 games en route to a 29-5 season. Then came last season’s 33-3 record, the most wins in program history. You can focus on the early NCAA Tournament exit if you want; I’ll tell you that team absolutely, 100 percent deserved its one-seed and that the first-weekend loss was more a fluke than anything.

This season, Villanova is sitting pretty on top of a Big East that has four teams ranked in the AP Poll. But that is not something this group takes for granted.

“Ever since that Columbia game, ever since the middle of my freshman year, we’ve just been battling,” Arcidiacono said. “We tell the younger guys on this team they never want to be part of that.”

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.