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How a trio of Villanova Wildcats are fueling the New York Knicks' playoff run


It is playoff time in the NBA, the point in the season where casual fans engage and rabid fans are on fire.




The energy was intense last night at Madison Square Garden, where the New York Knicks played the Indiana Pacers and took a two-nil lead in their seven-game series. But for Knicks fans, there were two games going on last night - one against the Pacers and one against a singular person who was in the arena.

SHAPIRO: Retired Pacer Reggie Miller, who was calling the game for TNT.


REGGIE MILLER: (Inaudible) here. Taking the ball off the bounce here - splits two Pacers.

KELLY: Miller is still despised by Knicks fans, dating back to the 1990s when Miller was a star player and a main rival of New York fans like Spike Lee.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And a steal - Miller retreats to the three-point line and hits again.

SHAPIRO: And it was clear that current Knicks players and fans have not forgotten.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting, inaudible).

SHAPIRO: Part of the Knicks' success this season hinges on three guys who all played for Villanova University. Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart and Donte DiVincenzo were teammates as undergrads in Philadelphia. Ryan Fannon called dozens of those games. He is the voice of Wildcats hoops, and he's here to talk about how those three players translated their college success to the NBA. Good to have you here.

RYAN FANNON: Oh, great to be with you today.

SHAPIRO: Do you remember a moment calling one of those Villanova games when you realized these three had a special chemistry?

FANNON: I think the thing that stood out to me the most about these three was the unselfishness that they bought in under our Hall of Fame, legendary coach for 21 years in Coach Jay Wright. I think that we always knew when these players came to Villanova that they were incredibly talented, had a - great high school careers. But the fact that they were able to put aside that old saying that we often talk about at Villanova - it's the name on the front of your jersey, not the back, that counts. And Jay Wright said, guys, if you can buy into this and don't think about it from an individual standpoint, all those things will happen by a byproduct of us winning and winning together.

You know, you think about Brunson, I mean, in his three years at Villanova, he was 103 wins and 13 losses. He wins two national championships, his first and third year, and he's national player of the year, consensus, his third year. And he was humble, he was hungry. That was a motto in the program, and those three guys really lived it. And the fact that they've all been able to get back together and do it collectively with the Knicks is just something that all of us that have been around Villanova for years, it's just an absolute joy to watch, as I know it is for all the Knicks fans.

SHAPIRO: So when you watch them play in the NBA now, what's changed most about them since their college days?

FANNON: Very little - and I think that's what makes it so special. You watch NBA during the regular season, and there's just not a lot of defense. It's up and down. But when you see Villanova basketball back in the day when these guys were playing, it was a program that bought into defense and rebounding first. And when you watch the Knicks play, and they play so hard and they play so together, it's just absolutely like I'm going back, broadcasting their games in college.

SHAPIRO: So the Knicks play like Villanova, thanks to these three guys?

FANNON: No question. I mean, I'm just watching the game last night and just seeing the crowd and the appreciation of the Garden - I mean, I've broadcast 26 straight Big East tournaments, but there's no place better in the world to broadcast a game than Madison Square Garden. And to see them last night there, it's just absolutely incredible - and the fan admiration that they have to play that hard and play that together, and that's what these three do at the highest level.

SHAPIRO: So how far do you think the Knicks are going to go this season?

FANNON: I think that obviously, up 2-0 now, very confident the Knicks will get through this Indiana series. But a lot of people out there - I even heard Charles Barkley last night saying, oh, the Knicks, if they get there, they'll have no chance against the Celtics. I think they're just discounting how much these guys do one thing - win. They find a way to win. I think the Celtics-Knicks will be a tremendous series, and it won't be a short series. But the Knicks will have to play at a level they have not played at yet if they're going to take out the Celtics and get to the NBA finals, in my opinion.

SHAPIRO: That's Ryan Fannon, the voice of Villanova basketball. Thanks a lot.

FANNON: Great being with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUSTA RHYMES SONG, "NEW YORK S***") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.