Behind the ’Nova Knicks that helped shape New York into a contender

Before a cocktail hour serving miniature lobster rolls, lamb chops and Jalen Brunson’s favorite hand-rolled sushi, the Knicks’ starting point guard walked down a white, candlelit aisle this past July.

There, underneath cascading flowers, ready to wed Brunson to his high school sweetheart, stood Ryan Arcidiacono, a man ordained in the state of Illinois by some online entity so quick to offer certificates he cannot recall its name. A man who would play 20 games for New York this season, and who led the Villanova Wildcats to their 2016 NCAA championship — two years before Brunson would help bring Jay Wright’s program back to the top of college basketball.

The divide between team and family has always been fuzzy for Brunson, who grew up around NBA teams his father, Rick, played and coached for. Leon Rose, who was his father’s agent and then became Jalen’s agent before becoming the Knicks’ president of basketball operations, awarded Jalen a four-year, $104 million contract a year before this summer ceremony inside the Chicago Ritz-Carlton. The family affair in New York has only grown as the Knicks solidified their standing among the Eastern Conference contenders, clawing their way to 50 regular-season wins, the No. 2 seed and now a 2-0 series lead over reigning MVP Joel Embiid and his 76ers.

Four months before Brunson’s wedding day, the Knicks traded for his college teammate, Josh Hart. Three weeks before his wedding day, they used free agency to sign the Most Outstanding Player from Villanova’s 2018 title sprint: Donte DiVincenzo. All have thrived during career-best seasons. Hart was the Knicks’ crunchtime hero in Saturday’s Game 1, drilling two 3-pointers in the final two minutes to clinch the victory over Philadelphia. Then it was DiVincenzo on Monday, driving and kicking to Brunson for a side-step long ball, only for DiVincenzo to splash the Game 2-winning triple following a physical steal by Brunson and Hart. And now they’ll head to Wells Fargo Center for Games 3 and 4 on Thursday and Sunday, respectively. The very court that once doubled as these former Wildcats’ home gym, while Villanova ran roughshod over the Big East and the rest of college basketball.

Brunson, fittingly, was back on campus the afternoon of the 2023 trade deadline when New York acquired Hart. The program was retiring Brunson’s jersey, the southpaw donning a navy Villanova letterman jacket, when his jaw fell to the floor. His current agent, Rose’s eldest, Sam, lifted a phone before Brunson’s face revealing the Knicks had landed his long-lost scrappy wing from the Trail Blazers. “Oh sh**!” Brunson howled. Footage of the point guard pacing with glee, raising his arms like a prizefighter, whipped around the internet like a tic-tac-toe Villanova possession. “I have the video where he found out I was getting traded back to Portland,” Arcidiacono told Yahoo Sports. “He’s on the highest of highs to then being like, ‘Are you f***ing kidding me?’”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 04: Josh Hart #3, Donte DiVincenzo #0 and Jalen Brunson #11 of the New York Knicks look on during the second half against the Sacramento Kings at Madison Square Garden on April 04, 2024 in New York City. The Knicks won 120-109. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 04: Josh Hart #3, Donte DiVincenzo #0 and Jalen Brunson #11 of the New York Knicks look on during the second half against the Sacramento Kings at Madison Square Garden on April 04, 2024 in New York City. The Knicks won 120-109. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

(From left) Josh Hart, Donte DiVincenzo and Jalen Brunson have helped alter the Knicks’ identity. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Arcidiacono held a Knicks roster spot during each of the past three seasons, carving out some NBA staying power after going undrafted despite Villanova’s 2016 title run. He even preceded Brunson’s tenure in New York, first signing a series of 10-day contracts with the Knicks, yet became a necessary casualty in the four-team deal that netted Hart. Arcidiacono was still living out of The Nines hotel in Portland, nursing his sick fiancée, Clare, in their temporary housing, when Brunson, Hart and the new-look Knicks came to town a bit later. He decided to meet his old friends just for dinner, only Brunson and his then-fiancée, Ali, insisted they come upstairs to say hello. The whole thing proved to be a ruse, where the couple gifted Brunson’s forever teammate a bottle of wine and asked him to officiate their big day.

Clare helped him, formulating the flow of Arcidiacono’s speech and presentation — with a necessary number of jokes at Brunson’s expense. This group of Villanova players’ incessant ribbing connects them more than any backdoor bounce pass ever could, so quick to comment on the size of Brunson’s head that Knicks center Isaiah Hartenstein — another Game 2 warrior against the Sixers — has even joined the bit. When Madison Square Garden gave fans Brunson bobble-heads at their regular-season finale, Hartenstein announced to the pregame locker room he felt Brunson’s cartoonish cranium still wasn’t big enough. “So I had to give a couple jabs to him,” Arcidiacono said, “but also uplift Ali and her moment of her wedding.”

With Rose and Tom Thibodeau, New York’s head coach, in attendance, Arcidiacano delivered his favorite one-liner about the signing that cemented Brunson in New York, the contract that flipped the trajectory of Knicks basketball toward the moon. “And one massive overpay later …” Arcidiacono quipped. “I was just giving Leon sh**, too,” he said. Because back in July, even before another incredible leap this season, before this electrifying start to these playoffs, Brunson had played more than commensurate with the four-year, $156 million extension he becomes eligible to sign a few days shy of his one-year anniversary. Maybe then he’ll pay Arcidiacono back the $75 fee for his application to conduct Brunson’s ceremony, after Arcidiacano paid forward the ways of Wright’s program, and its effects rippling through the Knicks to this very day.

When Wright told Arcidiacono he needed the junior guard to host a big-time recruit from Chicago, the upperclassmen, the local kid credited as the first to bite as loud as the Wildcats coaches barked, shrugged off the incoming prospect’s credentials. “All right, how good can this dude be?” Arcidiacono recalled. He jelled with Brunson off the court the night before, noting the unusual presence from someone three years younger at such a developmental age. By the time Villanova’s players convened to play pickup that next morning, Brunson was already in the gym shooting. The tone of his visit shifted before the guys laced their sneakers. “I felt like I had to get his respect,” Arcidiacono said, “for him to be like, ‘Oh, I am gonna play here because this dude’s gonna get me better. This is the type of culture that fits.’”

Therein lies the foundation, one of many thriving lineages winding through this era of Villanova basketball like some fraternal family tree. Even with freshmen chomping at the veterans’ heels ahead of them, “Each guy is passing the knowledge down to the guy who’s going to fill their own role,” said George Halcovage, then Villanova’s director of basketball operations. Arcidiacono helped raise Brunson, emphasizing grizzled guards take charges as often as they set the table. “That was huge for Jalen to have the captain and vet who showed us all how to play that style,” said former Villanova guard Phil Booth. Brunson, in turn, helped raise Collin Gillespie, and now the latter holds a two-way contract with the mighty Denver Nuggets.

They tested the newbies, too, don’t be fooled. Hart went after Mikal Bridges in practice, before he went after DiVincenzo, when he wasn’t going after anyone else he deemed fit for a dustup. “Our leaders were our best players,” Gillespie said. “Those were the guys that did all those little things and the younger guys had to follow suit.” They scuff their knees on the floor and crash the glass with abandon, the type of hustle that fuels the fire Thibodeau breathes in New York, that can produce 12 players who logged NBA minutes this season — fifth among all NCAA programs — stretching back to Villanova’s wiliest alumnus, Kyle Lowry, who has started for the Sixers in this very series. “It’s not for everybody. It was tough,” said Bridges, now with New York’s crosstown Brooklyn Nets. “But it just helps you build mental toughness that you can take with you for life.”

“The thing we do in our program is we work extremely hard on our craft,” Lowry told Yahoo Sports. “We only care about winning basketball. That’s what three of the guys are doing in New York right now.”

Lowry helped Randy Foye and Allen Ray reach the Elite Eight in 2006. Scottie Reynolds and Dante Cunningham brought Wright to the Final Four in 2009. The revival of the program, the arrival of a modern dynasty, began when Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu joined Villanova as freshmen in 2012.

For nearly a decade, Wright couldn’t steer his team past March’s opening weekend. The Wildcats even lost their second game of the 2015 NCAA tournament, falling as the top seed in their region, one year before they were cutting down nets. It was Arcidiacono and Ochefu who embraced Wright’s philosophies and approach, spouting musings cheesy enough to add whiz into any sandwich. Wright preached his program would always play 40 minutes of Villanova basketball. He’d meticulously refine his players’ pivots and footwork far beyond what their high school coaches taught, clamoring the whole way that no matter everyone’s role being different, everyone’s status was the same.

“It’s very corny, but we bought in, right away,” Arcidiacono said. “We set the standard as to, if you didn’t do it, if you didn’t fall in line, you were gonna look stupid.”

Arch is just an epitome of what it means to be a leader and what it means to be a Villanova basketball player,” said DiVincenzo. “He embodied everything that Coach Wright stood for.”

Practices began with a series of 50 shots around the basket, flipping layups with each hand off the backboard like George Mikan, pushing floaters from the paint, then adding in free throws. Arcidiacono and Ochefu agreed they would make all 50 attempts, not just go through the motions, and the ritual was never the same again. Players permitted to launch 3-pointers during games went through a gauntlet of 100 triples every day from different spots on the floor, both moving and stationary. “Just to live like a shooter,” Halcovage said.

It all brewed into something special whenever they scrimmaged live, the first team and the second team colliding, two blocks of marble then emerging more refined. Brunson hounded Arcidiacono every day as a freshman throughout that 2015-16 season. Whenever Bridges, the interminable defender, picked Hart’s pocket and started for a runaway bucket, there was Hart barreling after him. “We’d see it coming, and we’d be yelling, ‘No, Josh! No!’” Wright told Yahoo Sports. “And he would just crush him. Just take him out.” Before that season even began, when alumni all flocked back to Villanova for the annual Summer Jam golf outing, Lowry led a team of professionals against the burgeoning roster as their August custom always goes. The program’s retired greats observe the battle from the stands. “It’s not a celebrity game-type deal,” said Ed Pinckney, who watched Arcidiacono and Hart spearhead the younger group to three wins in a best-of-five battle. But Lowry protested, and things quickly became a series of seven games instead.

“That’s what made us so competitive,” Arcidiacono said. “‘No, I’m tougher! I’m better!’”

“I beat they ass,” Lowry told Yahoo Sports. “I won 4, they won 3. I ain’t never lost a Summer Jam.”

Those struggles have fostered deep connections, reaching back to Villanova’s heyday. Pinckney, the leading scorer on the late Rollie Massimino’s 1985 NCAA champion Wildcats, flew to Houston for the 2016 final against North Carolina alongside Massimino’s grandson, Tommy, both men working for respective NBA teams but pulled by brotherhood to watch their program make history. Lowry and other former players stuffed into seats behind Nova’s bench. “I remember analysts saying that we didn’t have pros on our team,” Brunson told Yahoo Sports. “I think the fact that anyone kind of doubted us at some point in time, individually, kinda fueled us a little bit.”

Who was it at the end but Arcidiacono, taking a screen from Ocehfu at midcourt, just before time expired, then handing off to Kris Jenkins for the title-clinching bomb. And there was Brunson and Bridges sprinting from the bench, tackling Arcidiacono to the hardwood floor as confetti fell like snowflakes. “We both got up and started running onto the court,” Brunson said, “because we knew it was good.”

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 4: Jalen Brunson #1, Josh Hart #3, Donte DiVincenzo #10, and Darryl Reynolds #45 of the Villanova Wildcats play against the St. John's Red Storm at the Wells Fargo Center on February 4, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Wildcats defeated the Red Storm 92-79. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 4: Jalen Brunson #1, Josh Hart #3, Donte DiVincenzo #10, and Darryl Reynolds #45 of the Villanova Wildcats play against the St. John's Red Storm at the Wells Fargo Center on February 4, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Wildcats defeated the Red Storm 92-79. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

(From left) Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart and Donte DiVincenzo of Villanova walk onto the floor at the Wells Fargo Center on Feb. 4, 2017, in Philadelphia. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

They were primed to contend again the following spring. “Nobody really remembers, obviously, people don’t remember us. We didn’t win that ’17 year,” said Brunson, flashing Villanova’s victory-or-nothing barometer. “But losing also helped us too.” Hart had tested the NBA Draft waters and decided to return for a chance at going back-to-back. Wright’s staff already agreed Brunson was the most college-ready player to ever enter its program, but his daily approach, coupled with Hart’s last hurrah mentality, took the baton from Arcidiacono and Ochefu and ratcheted up the intensity. “Those two, every day, how they brought it, was everything,” said Halcovage.

But Booth, who scored 20 against the Tar Heels, never recovered from a knee injury to contribute anything meaningful. Omari Spellman was supposed to begin his freshman year, yet was ruled ineligible. And once again, in the dreaded second round, Villanova ran into a buzzsaw of an experienced Wisconsin team. The Wildcats’ attention to detail waned for one critical moment that still sticks with them. Bridges was defending Nigel Hayes, whom Villanova had scouted as a one-direction driver. “He was going right,” Brunson said. “If he got the ball, he was going right. We all knew he wanted to go right.” Bridges did the initial job, shutting off Hayes’ preferred lane with the game tied and only 14 seconds remaining. Brunson, DiVincenzo and Eric Paschall all showed help. For an instant, they had him surrounded. “So we’re all like we’re good, we got him,” Brunson said. Hayes, though, managed to take one dribble left, then whirled right back over his intended shoulder and down the baseline for an easy bucket. “We’re all just like, we knew it was coming and he still did it,” said Brunson. “Coach definitely reminded us about that for a while.”

Hart left for the NBA, drafted No. 17 by the Los Angeles Lakers that June, but an added fervor heated each and every one of Villanova’s practices that 2017-18 campaign. Assistants spewed junk to get rises out of certain players. Wright understood when to push particular guys’ buttons. “We knew what we had to do after we lost,” Brunson said. “We were all ready to go. We were all fired up.” Brunson would torment Gillespie in practice. “Jalen was just like, ‘I’m gonna cook you,’” said Booth. Wright often lifted the bar for his team’s success higher than actually possible. “Even if you might do the right thing, it was still a turnover,” said Bridges. The coach mixed and matched lineups, with DiVincenzo dubbed as their sixth starter, and Wright would try to pin him against Brunson, tightly bound from sharing a dorm together as freshmen, and therefore coiled to spring as hard as they could directly at their closest ally. “And they’d want to kill each other,” Wright said.

On one loose ball drill, Wright had to stop practice as Brunson and DiVincenzo both sprawled along the floor and wouldn’t quit. “They were basically tackling each other into the wall out of bounds,” Gillespie said.

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“And if you don’t [compete], we were so good that you’d get embarrassed,” DiVincenzo said. “Everybody has a line of pride. And it just made practice that much better.”

The players found practice harder than their actual games, only dropping four matchups all year — during conference play — and besting each of their March Madness foes by 12 points or more. Villanova poured in a record 76 triples during their run through the NCAA tournament. And they would simply go back to their hotel rooms, watch the film, then reconvene in a conference area for the team’s 9 p.m. snack. Onto the next game, laser focused, as corny as Wright wanted it to be.

Brunson offered another cliche: “We took it one day at a time,” he told Yahoo Sports. “That was really important for us.”

It won’t be difficult to find that same approach right where he honed it inside Wells Fargo Center. Brunson, Hart and DiVincenzo are leading a Knicks group that believes it can and will, because they have. Wright tries his best to keep them hungry as much as humble, like when Bridges was starting for Phoenix during the 2021 NBA Finals, like whenever Brunson went off for 40 points during his All-Star campaign. That’s when he sends a text reminding them of their roots. “I’ll hit them once they go on a tear,” Wright said. Even if he thinks they don’t want to hear it, hoping they’ll at least tap back on iMessage with a heart or a thumbs up.

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