Nova's 'Arch' set up to lead as a sophomore in unpredictable Big East

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

VILLANOVA, Pa. -- Jay Wright admits he has no idea what to expect. This 2013-14 college basketball season offers up a lot of mystery, and not for typical reasons. When Wright's speaking of unknowns, he's not just talking about the new officiating protocol that will alter the very fabric of how the game is played, nor is he addressing his growing team -- now hampered by an injury that will carry over into the season's start.

He's also unsure of the league Villanova will play in. The reformed Big East (unclear on which 10 teams now comprise the conference? A primer here) is arguably the most difficult major league to forecast in recent memory. There is probably not a great team, but the argument can be made that 80 percent of the conference's clubs, right now, have legitimate reason to expect making the 2014 NCAA tournament.

"With the experience Providence has up front, and Bryce (Cotton) in the backcourt, one of the best guards in the country," Wright said, listing his team's intra-conference challenges for the year ahed. "Georgetown, Marquette and Creighton have experience. Compared to those teams, I think we have experience, but we're not that experienced."

Cue the Hendrix. And here's quite a compliment lobbed by Wright toward Steve Lavin's direction.

"Then you take St. John's, which is like a mini Kentucky. They're not that talented, but those kids are talented!"

So if Villanova's to maneuver through its season and make a ninth NCAA tourney in Wright's 13th season at the school, a kid they call "Arch" may have to be the bona fide star as a sophomore. Ryan Arcidiacono has a lot expected of him, fair or not. Consider: In his freshman season, Arcidiacono started every game, played the most minutes of anyone on the team and averaged 12 points and 3.5 assists -- on just 34-percent shooting. He began strong and leveled off as the season went on.

He and Wright account for the dip due to natural freshman fatigue, in addition to something significant and uncommon among college freshman: Arcidiacono missed his entire senior season of high school because of back surgery and recovery. Arcidiacono was fighting to be in proper basketball shape from the offseason on through league play last year. Fans expected too much, it's possible. Wright knew he could only squeeze so much from a guy that can become the face of the program in the months and years ahead.

"I compare that year to what RG3 is going through this year," Wright said. "He's healthy but he didn't start the season in a good rhythm. ... I think this year you're going to see a guy that had a complete offseason. Last year he had no offseason. He is confidence of being a sophomore and having been major factor as a freshman."

Arch committed to Villanova at Hoops Mania in 2010 (the school's Midnight Madness event), when he was a junior and getting chased heavily by Florida and Notre Dame. But he was from just outside Philly, and Villanova always seemed the destination once it was clear he was D-I talent. This is also what accounts for exalted expectations of his career, even at this point.

Prior to his surgery in December of 2011, Arcidiacono endured three epidurals on the L4-L5 discs in his lower back. The recovery took until April of 2012 for Arcidiacono to be fully "healed," but he now admits that last year never brought a feeling of true comfort or peak athletic ability. And now he's saying he's never been this strong or fast -- ever. He's hitting a top speed unlike anything he did in high school or last season.

"I came in as a freshman and tried to play hard and earn respect, and then get on the court and try to work my hardest that I could do for that," Arcidiacono said. "From mid to late last season is where I wanted to be more vocal, and when the season was over, I wanted to be setting an example of working hard, creating good habits."

It'll be very interesting for Villanova this year. With the security of bigs Mouphtaou Yarou and Maurice Sutton down low, Arch had something of a green light. The 34-percent shooting didn't completely hamper the team. But those bigs have bounced and now Nova will revert back to guard play similar -- but nothing near the level or totally exact in style -- of those Wildcats teams from four, five years ago that made a Final Four and won primarily with four-guard lineups. There is correction to come.

"You have to know every session counts," Arcidiacono said. "We led the country in turnovers last year."

That's not technically true, but the Wildcats were among the worst in holding on to the ball. Junior forward Jayvaugh Pinkston, who for a brief time wondered if he'd lose his leg this summer, is the returning leading scrorer (13.3) for Villanova. He and Arcidiacono could create a solid inside-out combo, but Pinkston isn't a true own-the-block player, standing around 6-7 and weighing about 235 pounds. Valuable as he may be, Pinkston isn't likely to be the guy to direct the ship, as most big men usually don't.

"He's our glue, our heart and soul," Wright said of Arch. "In a unique way, he's the leader of the team, and then there's another [guy]. James Bell's the veteran, he's been around four years. He's tough. Respected. Those two have a real nice dynamic. Archie's the confident, personable, aggressive, flashy leader. Yet humble. James Bell is the solid veteran, dirty work, intelligent leader."

The difference between Villanova taking third or winding up sixth or seventh in a loaded league could come down to how Arcidiacono plays, leads and blends with a team that's neither rebuilding, reloading -- or nearing its peak.

 
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