Villanova's Josh Hart making case for Player of the Year award

Villanova's Josh Hart making case for Player of the Year award

It was before the season started, perhaps October, Jay Wright estimates, when Josh Hart and his coach were talking about Hart’s game and his development entering his senior year on the Main Line.

The comment was just one made in passing. Hart told Wright he just needed to focus on being a 3-and-D player.

“He got heated,” Hart recalled, laughing.

“I just knew that was something that somebody else told him and I knew it was something that limited him in terms of just saying all you can do is shoot threes and play defense,” Wright said. 

The lesson from Wright to Hart, as Hart tells it: “Don’t ever put a label on yourself. Don’t ever undermine what else you can do.”

Approximately three months later, Hart’s label is much more than just a guy that shoots three’s and plays D. He’s the frontrunner for the National Player of the Year award, whether you prefer the Naismith or the Wooden Award. No Villanova player has won either. He's averaging 20.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game while shooting 56 percent from the floor.

He’s the best player on the nation’s best team, which is, of course, coming off a national championship victory in April.

Credit where credit is due: Hart would probably be nowhere near the top of the Wooden Award contenders if not for the players around him. Both he and Wright acknowledge that. These awards and their winners typically feature players from some of the nation’s best teams. When Phil Booth returns, Villanova will have arguably the best seven-man rotation in the country. Hart makes players around him better and vice versa.

What cemented Hart’s name atop the lists was his performance in Villanova’s come-from-behind win over then-No. 23 Notre Dame earlier in the month. His final stat line in his 37 minutes read: 37 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and two steals in a 74-66 win. The 37 points came on 14 shots from the floor and were padded by a perfect 14-for-14 from the free throw line. 

Per ESPN Stats, Hart became the first player to score at least 35 points and grab at least 10 rebounds while shooting greater than 70 percent from the floor against a ranked team since Antawn Jamison did so for North Carolina in 1998. 

What did Jamison do in 1998? Won both the Wooden and Naismith Awards.

In Villanova’s next game, against crosstown rival Temple, Hart missed his first five shots but later scored 22 points in a nine-minute stretch to blow the game open. 

Wright says was Hart just taking what the opposing defenses gave him in both of those performances. Validation to that comes in his shooting percentages. He isn’t taking bad shots. After missing his first five against Temple, Hart made 10 of 14. 

In the three games leading up to the Notre Dame game, Wright said Hart, on tape, should’ve had three triple-doubles. So Notre Dame elected to play him one-on-one and Hart took what they gave him. 

“I’d really love for it to work out for him, but it’s more important to me that he learns how to play the game the right way, which I think he is, and continues to play that way,” Wright said. “Because I think that’ll be his best chance of being Player of the Year… I also think it’s his best chance of playing at the next level, and it also happens to be the best chance for our team to be the best team.”

The next level is still a question mark for Hart. He’s obviously showing NBA scouts he has what it takes to play at that level. But he’s nowhere near the top of any draft analyst’s draft boards. ESPN’s Chad Ford has Hart ranked 29th on his 2017 big board.

The underdog role has been one Hart is used to since he stepped foot on campus at Sidwell Friends School in Washington D.C. Since coming to Villanova, he's waited patiently to be where he is now, both as a leader and player.

“I’m not going to be the most glamorous guy,” Hart said. “If you look at the box scores, you’re not going to be like, ‘Josh Hart, that guy is a player.’ Some games, like Notre Dame, you might. I want to be the guy that scores 15 points but goes and grabs 10 rebounds, goes and gets 5-6 assists, gets some steals, gets some blocks, fill the stat sheet. I don’t value myself on whether I’m making or missing shots. If I do that I’m not doing everything else.

“If you want to value this game on scoring, I’m not going to be the frontrunner. I’m not going to be the first person you think of. If you value this game for what it is, for being a complete basketball player, that’s what I try to be. I might not score 25 points per game, but I’m going to make the winning plays. If that doesn’t put me in certain situations (the NBA draft), it is what it is.”

It’s the winning plays Hart’s making that have Villanova back atop the college basketball world at 12-0. The Wildcats have won 18 in a row dating back to last season. That number will likely hit 19 Wednesday when they open their Big East slate with DePaul before their biggest test to date: a road game at No. 9 Creighton.

Last year in Omaha, Hart went for 25 on 10 of 14 shooting vs. Creighton. Just two of those baskets came from beyond the arc.

And he wanted to just be a 3-and-D guy?

Fastbreak Friday: Villanova to face pesky Providence Friars

Fastbreak Friday: Villanova to face pesky Providence Friars

CSN anchor/reporter Amy Fadool and producer Sean Kane get you set for all of the weekend's local college basketball games with Fastbreak Friday. Look for this column every Friday during the college basketball season.

Providence (13-7, 3-4 Big East) at No. 1 Villanova (18-1, 6-1 Big East), Saturday at noon

AF: This is a first. In the three seasons that I have been privileged to co-author this column, I've never written about Villanova. Today, that drought ends. Thank you to all who made this possible, which really is just one person: Sean Kane. 

I think one of the reasons that he relinquished his iron grip, just for one week, is that a new, young fan is now on board with this Villanova team and will be attending his first Wildcats game this weekend. When I say that our 2-year-old son is a fan, that may be understating it a little bit. He knows the entire roster, from Josh Hart to Donte DiVincenzo, and every player in between. He knows the fight song, and proudly belts out V for Villanova. Of course, I'm proud of my son. I do wish he could sneak in a few bars of "On, On U of K" or know one other Kentucky player besides Malik Monk. But that's enough of the background of why I finally broke through and am writing about Villanova this week.

The Wildcats returned to the No. 1 ranking this week as they welcome Providence to the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday. The Friars have given Jay Wright's teams fits over the past few seasons. You don't need to look much farther than last year when you check the numbers of a Ben Bentil or Kris Dunn. In fact, in the last three seasons, Villanova has lost one home game, and almost a year ago exactly that loss came courtesy of Providence. On Jan. 24, 2016, Bentil owned the low post and poured in 31 points, while the high-low game was working to perfection because Dunn racked up 14 assists. Of course, neither Dunn nor Bentil are on this year's Providence squad and that is a good thing for 'Nova.

The Friars come into this game on a short, two-game winning streak, but that's bigger than it may seem. Before that, they dropped five of their previous six games, including a heart-breaking one-point loss to DePaul.

Nothing seems to get Providence back on track better than Georgetown, already sweeping the season series with the Hoyas. Ed Cooley's team seems to do this every year — have a lull only to explode in March. The Friars did it three years ago, when Villanova crushed them by 30 in January, only to see Providence steamroll its way through the Big East Tournament. So I'm never ready to count out a Cooley team. 

But Villanova is rolling after it's lone loss of the year, falling to Butler on the road after a spectacular performance at Creighton. Sean wrote in this very column last week that the Wildcats needed to get more from their bench, specifically DiVincenzo. No, I don't think Donte reads this (though he should; it's fun!), but it was as if he did. In the decisive victory over Seton Hall this week, DiVincenzo posted 10 points, two rebounds and a monster block in 29 minutes of work, a solid effort off the bench. 

In the game before, at St. John's last weekend, DiVincenzo had starter-like numbers in a two-man bench effort with Eric Paschall. DiVincenzo tallied a career-high 19 points in the win at the Garden. And if the Wildcats are getting numbers near that from him, they should start thinking about a return trip to the Final Four. 

March is all about depth. Hart is going to get his. But you need other players to step up (see: Phil Booth in the title game). DiVincenzo could be that guy for Wright this year. This team certainly looks primed to go far in March. 

The spotlight on the Wells Fargo Center will shine on the Wildcats and another win. 

Villanova 80, Providence 66

La Salle (11-5, 5-1 A-10) at VCU (14-5, 4-2 A-10), Sunday at 2 p.m.

SK: Which city team has the longest winning streak? It's not top-ranked Villanova. The correct answer would be the La Salle Explorers, winners of five straight games and seven of their last nine. The good times kept rolling Thursday night with a 91-83 victory over Davidson at Tom Gola Arena. 

Four different Explorers scored 12 or more points in the win, and the one starter who didn't — junior Demetrius Henry — provided three critical baskets in the closing minutes.

Henry's contributions aside, the night belonged to Jordan Price. The senior guard scored 29 points on 9-of-14 shooting. Price knocked down 4 of 6 three-point attempts and went 7 of 8 from the foul line. The Explorers' leader is hitting his stride, averaging 26 points in the last two games while shooting 72 percent from the field.

La Salle now sets its sights on a Sunday showdown at VCU, which has a 14-5 record under second-year head coach Will Wade. The Rams will be hungry for a win, having dropped back-to-back road games at Davidson and Fordham. Wade has done an admirable job maintaining the success of the VCU program following the departure of Shaka Smart to Texas following the 2014-15 season. The Rams advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament a year ago and have a good shot at making their way into the Field of 68 again this season.

The Explorers shouldn't be phased by VCU's raucous homecourt advantage. La Salle won in double overtime in its last trip to Richmond against VCU two years ago.

I can honestly see this game going either way, and would be surprised if things weren't decided in the final minutes. But I'm riding the hot hand with the Explorers and Price. La Salle is a confident team right now; look for them to figure out a way to win a sixth straight game on Sunday.

La Salle 81, VCU 78

Pennsylvania (6-8, 0-3 Ivy League) at Saint Joseph's (8-9, 2-4 A-10), Saturday at 7 p.m.

AF: The Quakers are in the midst of a tough stretch. They opened up Ivy League play with rival Princeton two weeks ago, and it started a three-game losing streak — first to the Tigers, then home losses to Yale and Brown. But it's not as if Penn hasn't been in these games. In the loss to Brown, the Quakers cut it to just a two-point deficit with under eight minutes to play, but a great defensive stand by the Bears led to Penn's missing its next seven shots. 

Next up for Steve Donahue, a Big Five matchup with Saint Joseph's, a team also reeling a bit. 

In it's most recent game, a five-point loss at UMass, St. Joe's shot 32 percent, including an abysmal 26 percent in the second half. 

Once again, the Hawks did get a solid effort from James Demery. The junior had a career-high 11 rebounds to go with his team-high 19 points in the loss. One would think that if Phil Martelli keeps getting efforts like that from Demery, the Hawks will break through on a win soon. They are just short-handed with injuries right now.

This game will be played at the Palestra, which contrary to a silly Duke tweet this week, is the greatest home court in college basketball. Fun fact: Penn has enjoyed more success against Saint Joseph’s than any other Big 5 opponent in recent years, with three wins over the last six meetings.

But I don't know if that fun fact continues this weekend. Both teams are playing with a little desperation, and I think that the shooters for the Hawks will step up in this one.

St. Joseph's 62, Penn 60

Drexel (7-12, 1-5 CAA) at UNC Wilmington (18-2, 7-0 CAA), Sunday at 4 p.m.

SK: To say this is a tall order for Drexel would be an understatement. The Dragons have dropped six of their last seven games, including a 20-point loss at Elon Thursday night. Meanwhile, UNC Wilmington enters Sunday's game with an 18-2 record and a perfect 7-0 mark in CAA play. The Seahawks' two losses this season came at Clemson and against a very good Middle Tennessee State team.

The UNC Wilmington program has enjoyed a remarkable turnaround under third-year head coach Kevin Keatts, who previously served as Rick Pitino's assistant at Louisville. The Seahawks won 25 games and made it to the NCAA Tournament last year, losing a tightly contested game to Duke in the first round. After establishing themselves as the class of the CAA once again this season, it would come as a major surprise if they're not back in the Big Dance this March. 

UNC Wilmington has three players averaging 15 points or more — C.J. Bryce (17.5), Chris Flemmings (15.9) and Denzel Ingram (15.5). The Seahawks simply have too much firepower for a Drexel team struggling to find its way under first-year head coach Zach Spiker. For the Dragons' sake, I hope I'm wrong, but I don't see this being much of a contest.

UNC Wilmington 77, Drexel 59

Prediction records
Sean Kane: 18-4
Amy Fadool: 13-7

Delaware avenges 36-point loss with upset of Northeastern

Delaware avenges 36-point loss with upset of Northeastern

BOX SCORE

NEWARK, Del. -- Freshman Ryan Daly scored 27 points and Delaware avenged its worst loss of the season, upsetting Northeastern 69-62 on Thursday night for the Blue Hens' first Colonial Athletic Association win of the season.

Cazmon Hayes added 13 points and Eric Carter 11 for Delaware (8-12, 1-6), which snapped a six-game losing streak that had included a 36-point loss, 90-54, to the Huskies on Jan. 5.

T.J. Williams scored 28 points, the only Huskies player to reach double figures. Northeastern (12-7, 5-2) lost its second straight after an eight-game winning streak.

Three-pointers by Devonne Pinkard and Daly gave Delaware the lead for good at 46-41 with 11 minutes left. A 14-2 run with eight points each from Carter and Daly made it a 12-point lead with two minutes to go.

Delaware made 17 of 22 free throws to 7 of 14 for Northeastern.