PITTSBURGH - It is 30 miles, give or take a shortcut or two, from Nick Lindner's house in Doylestown to the Kirby Sports Center on Lafayette College's campus in Easton. It is 20 miles from his house to Germantown Academy's campus in Fort Washington. Lindner could tie a blindfold over his eyes, settle behind the wheel of his car, and drive those routes safely. He'd know just when he was winding up Route 611 North, hugging the Delaware River's banks, on his way to Easton, and he'd know just when he had to turn left on Tennis Avenue in Ambler so he didn't blow past his high school to the west.
Lindner, a sophomore at Lafayette and a former all-Inter-Ac League selection at Germantown Academy, has spent his two college summers making those 100 miles worth of trips every day. Up to Kirby to shoot jumpers and work out in the weight room from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., down to his house to have his mother fix him dinner, down to GA's gym to shoot some more, then home again. All those trips, all those hours in those two gyms, helped shape Lindner into perhaps the Patriot League's best point guard, and no Lafayette player will occupy more of Villanova' attention here Thursday night, when the No. 1-seeded Wildcats meet the No. 16-seeded Leopards in the NCAA tournament's first round.
Listed at 5-foot-11, with a flattop haircut that calls to mind a character in Hoosiers and tattoos on his upper arms that call to mind just about every 21st-century young adult, Lindner averaged 12.8 points and 5.4 assists per game for Lafayette this season. But he was at his best during the Patriot League tournament: scoring 71 points over the three games (23.7), including 25 in the championship-game victory over American, and winning the tournament's MVP award.
"Before every game [freshman year], I'd get extremely nervous and anxious," Lindner said Wednesday before Lafayette practiced at the Consol Energy Center. "This year, it's a little bit calmer. I can just focus."
That all-consuming devotion to basketball can be a bit problematic at Lafayette, where the term student-athletes can actually be used without irony or contradiction. When Leopards coach Fran O'Hanlon - a Villanova alumnus and an old point guard himself - learned that Lindner had skipped a couple of classes so he could get in extra workouts at Kirby, O'Hanlon called him in for a one-on-one meeting. Lindner sat down and pleaded his case, arguing that he had come to college to do more than just bury his head in books.
"What, you think I was a [expletive] Rhodes Scholar or something?" O'Hanlon recalled telling him. "Nick, you've got to go to class."
During his freshman year at GA, Lindner often called coach Jim Fenerty on Saturday nights, asking Fenerty to contact the school's security office so that the officers would open the gym. "He was the guy where I never had to worry about his social life," Fenerty said, "because his social life involved people named Wilson and Rawlings."
Fenerty had encountered situations similar to Lindner's before. In the mid-1990s, for instance, before Alvin Williams went on to star for Villanova and play nine seasons in the NBA, he had pestered Fenerty just as Lindner did, so much so that Fenerty ended up giving Williams a key to the gym.
"Nowadays," Fenerty said, "you can't give keys to a building to kids." So this time, Fenerty instead brokered an arrangement: Lindner could have carte-blanche access to the gym, as long as Lindner gave the security office enough notice that he was coming.
"He was in there all summer long, all winter long," Steve Dolan, GA's security director and a Villanova alumnus, said in a phone interview Wednesday. "Even after Coach Fenerty's practices, he would ask for more time. He was just a hard worker - quiet young man, but would not have any gumption about calling us to try to get into the gym. We'd get him in whenever we could, set him up, get the lights on.
"I think sometimes he was even in there shooting in the dark."
Fenerty eventually put Lindner in touch with Williams, and those nighttime shooting sessions became grist for a growing friendship between the two former GA guards. The two traded text messages Wednesday. "He just said he was proud and looking forward to [Thursday]," Lindner said. "I don't know if he meant it, but he said, 'I'll see you in Pittsburgh.' "
Williams' role as mentor doesn't mark Lindner's only connection to Villanova, of course. In seventh grade, Lindner played on an AAU team with Wildcats guard and fellow Bucks County native Ryan Arcidiacono, and because of O'Hanlon's playing career, it was natural to wonder if, when he recruited Lindner, he saw himself.
"I see myself in the way he works at the game," O'Hanlon said. "He's obsessed."
If there were any doubt, Nick Lindner has the odometer to prove it.