Hart hangs around, and now he’s a lead­ing man

Return to Vil­lanova pays off for for­mer Sid­well star

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY AVA WAL­LACE

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-theyear-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.

COREY PERRINE/GETTY IM­AGES

Se­nior Josh Hart is a can­di­date for na­tional player of the year. He av­er­ages 19 points and 6.6 re­bounds for the top-ranked Wild­cats.

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