Before this college basketball season, Villanova guard Josh Hart had to work on his decision-making. The first decision, made not long after helping his team secure the national championship, was a big one: He decided to return for his senior year rather than enter the NBA draft. Months later, when the muggy doldrums of the offseason were staring him down in a Villanova gym, he addressed more subtle choices.
“It was more so on the court, making sure I make the right play,” Hart explained.
Villanova Coach Jay Wright knew the two types of decisions, one off the court and the other on, were intertwined. When Hart chose to play another year at Villanova, he also chose the spotlight. The 6-foot-5 guard from Silver Spring faced plenty of attention from opposing defenses last year as the Wildcats’ leading scorer. But now Ryan Arcidiacono, the most outstanding player of last year’s Final Four, and Daniel Ochefu, the Wildcats’ standout big man, had graduated to the pros. Hart would be at the top of every team’s scouting report, and he had to lead Villanova’s offense.
So in practice Wright made sure Hart got plenty of attention.
“That’s really the only way to drill that,” Hart said. “Coach just puts me in that main position every day in practice. You go through it 20 times in practice, and over the course of the week you do it 140 times, and over the course of the month — I’m not even going to do that math. When you do it so much, you’re going to make the right play. You’re going to be able to realize how defenses are playing you. You’re just going to know.”
So far, Hart’s choices have paid off. Heading into Sunday’s matchup against No. 12 Virginia (16-3) at Wells Fargo Center, top-ranked Villanova is making a strong bid to defend its national title and Hart has emerged as a front-runner for the Wooden Award as college basketball’s player of the year.
“He’s national-player-of-the-year-caliber,” said Marquette Coach Steve Wojciechowski, whose Golden Eagles held Hart to 16 points and eight rebounds in an upset on Tuesday that could drop the Wildcats (19-2) out of the No. 1 ranking they have held seven of the past eight weeks. “He’s had a great season. We were fortunate in our game here to get him in foul trouble, but the kid is a winner, plain and simple … he’s always making winning plays.
“He’s exactly the type of leader you would want your seniors to be, and for a kid who’s gotten better year after year, it’s great that he’s getting the national recognition that he deserves.”
To Hart, whose 19 points per game lead the Big East and 6.6 rebounds per game lead the Wildcats, it seems like his journey to the national spotlight has been filled with tough decisions.
As a 15-year-old, he was dismissed from Sidwell Friends School in Northwest amid academic and behavioral struggles and he considered bolting for the more nationally recognized basketball program at Montrose Christian in suburban Maryland. But thanks to an outpouring of support from his peers at Sidwell, Hart was reinstated and used his second chance to blossom in the classroom and as a leader on the hardwood.
In deciding to go to Villanova, Hart chose life as a bit player for a year or two over the promise of instant stardom at Penn State or Rutgers.
But choosing not to enter the NBA draft last year was the biggest decision of his life, Hart said. After scoring 35 points in two Final Four games, he got good feedback from NBA officials, who told him he could be selected as early as the late first round, which would have ensured a guaranteed contract. But Hart decided he needed another year to grow emotionally.
“Obviously, if I was a top 10 or top 15 pick, Coach would have been kicking me out the door,” Hart said with a laugh. “But I knew I needed to mature. People always talk about getting to the league, but my biggest thing is surviving in the league. I want to make sure I put myself in the best position to have a long career and in turn, take care of my family. If I left this year I could’ve found my way, but I knew I needed to mature.”
Having his teammates depend on him for the first time in Hart’s career has helped in that department. Contrary to what the stat sheet says, Hart is less caught up in his own scoring and more concerned with making his teammates look good.
“He’s changing from being a great player following Daniel Ochefu and Ryan Arcidiacono to being a great player who’s far more concerned about the team and everyone else than he is about himself,” Wright said. “And then on the court, I’ve seen him become a complete player. He was a scorer, a rebounder — now, he has to come into every game and deal with every scouting report set up for him, every team set up to stop him, and he just picks his way and finds ways to win.
“He just does everything. He’s just become so complete as a player I think that at the next level, in the NBA, teams are going to have to pick — whatever they need, he can fill.”
Hart is far off from worrying again about the NBA. First, he has a national title to defend and possibly some individual hardware to pick up along the way. He admits he’s thought about the Wooden Award, if only because he has to answer questions about it every week.
Otherwise, Hart tries to keep it out of his mind.
“The spotlight is definitely new, but it’s definitely cool. It’s humbling. You just realize you can’t play focusing on individual accolades. You have to be the best player you can be, for your team. If that means you’re national player of year, great,” Hart said with finality.
He knows that one, at least, isn’t his decision to make.