Nobody in the NBA was knocking down Ryan Arcidiacono’s door when his junior season ended a year ago. Buddy Hield — that was a different story.
Arcidiacono stayed at Villanova because he had no other choice. Hield stayed at Oklahoma because he had unfinished business.
The guards, who lead their respective teams in very different ways, are each closing out their senior year at the top of their sport — with a trip to the Final Four.
"It’s four years of commitment to Villanova and to a program," Arcidiacono said, when asked to describe his emotions as he sprinted in circles after the Wildcats defeated Kansas.
The Oklahoma-Villanova semifinal Saturday will pit a pair of No. 2 seeds who knocked off the top seeds in their regions to earn their trips to Houston.
The second semifinal will pit 10th-seeded Syracuse, only the fourth double-digit seed to make the Final Four, against North Carolina in an ACC rematch. The Tar Heels, who beat Notre Dame 88-74 to become the only top seed to make the Final Four, have already beaten the Orange twice this season.
"It means a lot," said senior Brice Johnson, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, whose first Final Four will be the program’s record 19th. "It took us four years to do this, but we’re finally there."
Syracuse, a bubble team that many people didn’t think belonged in the tournament, finished its 68-62 win in the Midwest Regional over top-seeded Virginia on a 29-8 run.
"In my 40 years coaching basketball, I’ve never been prouder of a team," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, leading the Orange to the Final Four for the fifth time.
The Sooners are back for the first time since 2002. Their semifinal against Villanova is a rematch of Oklahoma’s 78-55 win in December in Hawaii. Oklahoma wouldn’t have reached this point without Hield, who has debunked any notion that an NBA prospect has nothing to gain by staying at school.
He would’ve been a first-round pick had he left after last season, but has used Year 4 with the Sooners to get better at pretty much every facet of offense — ball-handling, footwork, creating shots and making them from longer range. He’s averaged 25.4 points a game this season. In four tournament games, including his 37-point effort in the win over Oregon, he has averaged 29.
That will pay off when the draft rolls around in June. Hield said the feeling he had last March, when the Sooners fell to Michigan State in the Sweet 16, is what brought him back.
"We had a bad taste in our mouth last spring, and we wanted to work hard," Hield said. "As soon as we came back the next week, next day we were in the gym working out. Guys really wanted to get to this point."
When it comes to shortcomings in March, though, nobody felt the pain more deeply than Arcidiacono and the Wildcats.
Villanova was a top seed last year and a No. 2 the year before — and didn’t make it out of the first weekend either time.
All worth it, said Arcidiacono, who averages 12 points and four assists and was a co-Big East Player of the Year last season.
A scrappy 6-foot-3 star at Neshaminy High School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Arcidiacono grew up loving the Wildcats. He remembers watching Scottie Reynolds take the pass just behind midcourt and drive to the hoop for the buzzer-beating basket that sent Jay Wright’s team to its last Final Four, in 2009. Arcidiacono had no visions of playing for Villanova, though.
"At that point in my life, I was just hoping to play basketball for fun and maybe get a scholarship," he said.
He got the scholarship. At Villanova, no less. Wright was from the same area and the two bonded. Now, a matchup looms — in Houston, on college basketball’s biggest stage, against Hield, who is arguably its most valuable player.
"We went through the struggles," Arcidiacono said. "We lost to Columbia our freshman year by 20 at home. We know what the lows are. Now we’re getting to see the highs."