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The Nova Knicks are history in the making. Can college champs win an NBA title together?

The Nova Knicks are history in the making. Can college champs win an NBA title together?

We should have seen this coming.

In 2022, the New York Knicks swung a minor trade that seemingly signaled a larger scheme. About a month ahead of the trade deadline, they acquired Cam Reddish from the Atlanta Hawks to pair him with his former Duke teammate and then-Knicks guard R.J. Barrett. People around the league (including yours truly) wondered if this was the move before the move. That is, to eventually lure Zion Williamson to New York and complete the Duke triumvirate that won the ACC championship and eventually reached the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament in 2019.

We had it all wrong. Little did we know what Knicks top brass Leon Rose and head coach Tom Thibodeau were plotting. We should have set our sights higher, because here’s the thing: that Duke team didn’t win an NCAA championship.

On Tuesday night, the Knicks traded Bojan Bogdanović, five first-round picks and a first-round pick swap to acquire former Brooklyn Nets wing Mikal Bridges, a package that somehow undersells the Knicks’ bold plan. By acquiring Bridges, it appears they’re recreating Villanova’s NCAA championship squads from 2016 and 2018. Bridges will now join his former Wildcat teammates Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart and Donte DiVincenzo as they try to duplicate their success at the collegiate level.

The Knicks, as of now, will pursue an NBA championship while boasting four players from the same NCAA championship teams. Former Villanova head coach Jay Wright’s reaction to the trade spoke to the rarity of what’s in front of his former players:

The Knicks never did complete the Duke trio by dealing for Zion; Reddish and Barrett didn’t last long in New York and Williamson is still in New Orleans. But clearly, the Knicks value collegiate camaraderie. The Brunson, Hart and DiVincenzo collab helped them win 50 games and reach the Eastern Conference semifinals last season. Now they’re dipping back into the well.

It got me thinking: Have the Nova Knicks ever happened before? An NBA team basically attempting to produce a sequel of an NCAA championship team?

The short answer is no. Not to the extent of what the Knicks are trying to do.

At least not from my research since 1990 goes. In Brunson, DiVincenzo, Hart and now Bridges, the Knicks will have four players from the 2018 championship team on the roster. As soon as they take the floor, it will represent the most college teammates from an NCAA championship team to play on the same NBA team in the modern era for any team.

Actually, scratch that. It ties last season’s team that didn’t have Mikal Bridges but did have Ryan Arcidiacono.

If they add free agent Arcidiacano to the roster, they will be making history, with five collegiate champion teammates suiting up for the same NBA team.

Here are four other iterations since 1990 that have had as many as three NCAA champion teammates playing together — and what, if anything, they can tell us about what may be the fate of this group.

Walter McCarty and Antoine Walker were among Kentucky’s champions to play for the Celtics in the NBA. (Photo by Boston Herald/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)

The players: Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer, Tony Delk, Wayne Turner and Walter McCarty.

Rick Pitino famously declared that “Larry Bird isn’t walking through that door,” but basically the entire Kentucky Wildcats team did. Pitino had won the 1996 NCAA championship at Kentucky and then took the Celtics job with the bold ambition of raising another Boston banner with essentially all Wildcats. A whopping nine Wildcats from the 1996 title team went on to play in the NBA and five of them, at one point or another, walked through the Celtics’ door in the late '90s and early 2000s.

There were no secrets here. Though he inherited Walker, who was drafted eighth in the 1996 draft, Pitino and the Celtics drafted Mercer sixth overall and traded for McCarty ahead of the 1997-98 season to bring the total to three players from that 1996 team. Over the next five seasons after '97-98, the Celtics employed Tony Delk and Wayne Turner, but never more than three at any one time. (Delk actually arrived after Pitino resigned in 2001.)

Pitino’s reign as Celtics coach was considered a disaster. However, there’s one key difference between that Celtics squad and this version of the Knicks: Jay Wright isn’t coaching the Knicks. Tom Thibodeau won’t be accused of playing favorites like Pitino, and that probably will go a long way in the Knicks locker room.

Result: No winning seasons in Pitino’s three-plus seasons.

The Detroit Pistons’ Richard Hamilton, left, and Charlie Villanueva watch from the bench late in the fourth quarter of the Indiana Pacers’ 105-93 win Jan. 22, 2010, in Auburn Hills, Mich. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

The players: Ben Gordon, Richard Hamilton and Charlie Villanueva

Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva didn’t quite overlap with Rip Hamilton’s college tenure (hence the asterisk above), but these are three UConn champs that played on the same team in the pros. It doesn’t perfectly match what we’re going for here, but I guess there are worse things than pilfering UConn title teams for talent (a 2024 draft preview?).

Hamilton hailed from the 1998-99 UConn team that beat Duke and eventually made his way to Detroit, where he won another championship in 2004. Meanwhile, his alma mater, the 2003-04 UConn squad was busy winning its own title, and later boasted six NBAers — Gordon, Emeka Okafor, Villanueva, Josh Boone, Hilton Armstrong and Marcus Williams. Gordon and Okafor were the only ones to leave school directly after cutting down the nets and the rest came later.

Neither Gordon nor Villanueva was drafted by the Pistons, but they both reunited in free agency in the summer of 2009, inking a deal with Joe Dumars’ Pistons — a team that spun its wheels following the Flip Saunders era. The Detroit Huskies era ended up being utterly forgettable in the two seasons under coach John Kuester, who never coached again.

Result: No playoff appearances in two seasons.

The players: Steve Blake, Lonny Baxter and Juan Dixon

Imagine if Pitino won a championship at Boston College and then tried to acquire all of his guys for the Celtics. That’s what the Maryland Wizards were like. The 2002 Maryland Terrapins produced four NBA players after beating Indiana for the NCAA title and three of them almost immediately played for the local NBA team, the Wizards. The only one that didn’t — Chris Wilcox — played 11 years in the league, but never with the DC squad.

The Wizards were undeterred by Pitino’s reign in Boston. In 2002, they grabbed Dixon with the 17th pick while Blake was their second-round selection the following year in 2003. Hoping to conjure up some of that title magic, the Wizards added Baxter to the mix in 2003-04 after he was waived by the Toronto Raptors midseason. It didn’t go well. Baxter played only 12 games for the Wizards and was out of the league two years later. Blake and Dixon moved on after the 2004-05 season.

Result: A dreadful 25-57 (.305) season with all three Terrapins. The 2004-05 Wizards reached the Eastern Conference semifinals with Blake and Dixon coming off the bench.

The players: Grayson Allen, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow

Headlined by Jahlil Okafor, the 2014-15 Duke Blue Devils produced a whopping eight NBA players, so maybe it’s no surprise that three of them wound up playing together at the next level. But I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t remember this one.

Winslow and Jones were freshman starters on the title team that took down Wisconsin, while Allen came off the bench and stayed all four years. Despite the loaded roster, the Duke '15 title squad did not yield exactly the most inspiring batch of NBA products. Winslow, Jones and Okafor all left early following the championship and none of them approached star status. Jones, drafted 24th by Minnesota, has enjoyed perhaps the best career of the group while Allen is also carving out a nice role as a 3-and-D weapon.

It took awhile but Allen, Jones and Winslow eventually reunited on a 2020-21 Memphis group led by Ja Morant. Unlike the other Nova Knicks comps on this list, this one seemed to be more happenstance rather than a deliberate attempt to whip up some Devilish magic. Allen and Jones pitched in from the bench while Winslow struggled to stay healthy enough to contribute. Total minutes played together on the floor: four. Something tells me the Nova Knicks will top that under Thibodeau by quite a bit.

Result: One playoff appearance as bench players.

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