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: No. 2 Villanova hopes to rebound vs. No. 23 Creighton

Fastbreak Friday: No. 2 Villanova hopes to rebound vs. No. 23 Creighton

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.

No. 23 Creighton (22-6, 9-6 Big East) at No. 2 Villanova (26-3, 13-3 Big East), Saturday, 3 p.m.
SK: Second-ranked Villanova takes another crack at securing a fourth straight outright Big East regular season championship on Saturday against No. 23 Creighton. The Wildcats couldn't capitalize on their first opportunity to do so, losing 74-66 to Butler on Wednesday. The loss snapped Villanova's 48-game win streak at the Pavilion, a run of success that dated back to February of 2013. 

Despite the setback, Villanova just needs one win in its final two games to clinch the outright league title as well as the accompanying top seed in the Big East Tournament in two weeks. The Wildcats also remain in prime position to earn the No. 1 seed in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament.

But there is cause for concern -- namely, the absence of senior forward Darryl Reynolds. A rib injury has sidelined Reynolds for each of the last four games, forcing Jay Wright to play with essentially a six-man rotation. Freshman forward Dylan Painter has seen spot minutes but played just one minute Wednesday against Butler. As a result, three Wildcats -- Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges -- played 37 minutes in the loss. 

Playing with a six-man rotation can wear a team down eventually. Particularly a six-man rotation with no players taller than 6-6. And there's no denying Villanova looked gassed in the second half against Butler. Their offensive execution was uncharacteristically sloppy and defensively they allowed Butler far too many open looks at the basket. The Wildcats have survived this season without freshman big man Omari Spellman (academically ineligible) and junior guard Phil Booth (knee injury), but Reynolds' absence is beginning to catch up with them. 

Reynolds will once again be a game-time decision for Saturday's game against Creighton. It will be Senior Day, so Reynolds will undoubtedly be eager to take the Pavilion floor one last time with classmates Hart and Kris Jenkins. Meanwhile, Hart and Jenkins will be eager to atone for lackluster performances against Butler. Hart finished 7 of 18 from the field and 0 for 4 from the foul line, while Jenkins went 1 for 8 overall and 1 for 5 from three-point range.

The good news for Villanova continues to be the play of sophomore Jalen Brunson, who is performing as well as any point guard in the country. Brunson scored a game-high 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting against Butler and is averaging 20.2 points in his last four games. He scored a career-high 27 points at Creighton on New Year's Eve.   

Look for Brunson to keep rolling on Saturday, and get some help from Hart and Jenkins on Senior Day. The Villanova seniors still haven't lost two games in a row in their careers. That shouldn't change on Saturday.

Villanova 84, Creighton 72

La Salle (14-12, 8-7 A-10) at Massachusetts (13-15, 3-12 A-10), Sunday, 1 p.m.
AF:
The Explorers book end their month of February with UMass. They will once again face the Minutemen, a team they beat by 10 points at home on Feb. 1. In that game, it took a combined 49-point effort from Jordan Price and B.J. Johnson to put the game away. At the time, that put La Salle in the upper quarter of the Atlantic 10 standings at 6-3. But this month has not been too kind to Dr. John Giannini's team. Losses to Saint Bonaventure, Richmond and George Mason have seen La Salle slip down to the middle of the pack in the conference. 

But there are still three games to play and the A10 tournament. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the Explorers can run the table into the NCAA Tournament, but they can salvage a few wins and end a once-promising season on a high note. 

Meanwhile, UMass has lost eight of its last 10 games and while the only wins in that span came against a Philadelphia team, it was not La Salle but St. Joe's. In their previous meeting with the Explorers, the Minutemen shot very well, better than 55 percent from the field, including five three-pointers, in the first half to jump out to a lead. So La Salle needs to guard against another hot start in Amherst. 

I would like to see more from Price too. This team, full of transfers, has seemed to get away from Price. It could be because his role as the leading scorer or the best player on the team has been taken over, but Price needs to show that he can still score the ball effectively like he did last season. 

You never know which La Salle team will show up. Will it be the one who beat Rhode Island on the road, or the one who lost to St. Joseph's? I'm going with road warriors. 

La Salle 76, UMass 66

Tulane (5-22, 2-13 AAC) at Temple (14-15, 5-11 AAC), Saturday, 12 p.m.
SK:
The hits just keep coming for Temple. The Owls lost each of their last two games in the final minute, or in the case of Sunday's loss to UConn -- the final seconds. Temple has lost three straight and has lost 11 of its last 16 games. Fortunately, a visit from Tulane on Saturday offers a much-needed chance for the Owls to regain some positive vibes. The Green Wave has just five wins all season and are 2-13 in conference play. 

Temple handed Tulane a 79-71 win back in late January behind 18 points from freshman guard Quinton Rose, who was coming off the bench at the time. Rose has since moved into the starting lineup and the results have been tangible. He's averaging better than 12 points in his last five games to boost his season average to an even 10 points. Meanwhile, Obi Enechionyia continued his uneven season over the course of the last two games -- following up a two-point outing against UConn with a team-high 17 points on Wednesday against UCF.

I'd be surprised if Enechionyia and Temple don't take out their frustration on Tulane on Saturday. The Green Wave has all of two wins since Dec. 10. They're not getting one at the Owls' expense this weekend. 

Temple 75, Tulane 60

Saint Joseph's (10-17, 3-12 A-10) at Saint Louis (9-19, 4-11 A-10), Saturday, 4:30 p.m.
AF:
 Has there been a team more snake bitten in one season? Former Drexel coach Bruiser Flint might tell you yes, but even he didn't have to suffer through three players out for the season, two of them leading scorers at the time of injury. 

The Hawks have been decimated by devastating, season-ending injuries. But the band must play on. Phil Martelli will be the first one to tell you that. So as SJU winds down it season, the coach, players and fans alike are looking for positives. And one of those is the playing time opportunity the injuries have bestowed upon younger members of the roster. Freshman Charlie Brown and sophomore Chris Clover have seen their roles increased and that should pay dividends for the Hawks in the future

Back to the here and now, it's a visit to Saint Louis this weekend. And pretty much the only reason the Billikens have been in the national news this season was because of a stolen bus. Tough times out in Saint Louis for a program that was once seen, under Rick Majerus, as a rising star among the mid-majors. Travis Ford, the former Oklahoma State coach has a chance to get their program back on the map, for something other than a drunk bus driver that tried to make off with their gear and bus. 

For the Hawks, having James Demery and Brown, the two remaining double-digit scorers still healthy, step up and take the reigns is a positive sign. In their recent loss to Saint Bonaventure, Demery poured in 21. Brown struggled a bit scoring, but was effective on the defensive end. The Hawks just didn't have enough to stop a guy like the Bonnies' Matt Mobley on a career night, but still only lost by six. 

I know they are down players on the roster. I know that turnovers have plagued them in close games. I know their shooting percentage has been down. But I think the Hawks could get a win this weekend on the road. Call me crazy, but I like "the little engine that could" mentality of this team right now. 

St. Joe's 72, Saint Louis 70

Pennsylvania (11-12, 4-6 Ivy) at Cornell (7-18, 3-7 Ivy), Friday, 7 p.m.
Pennsylvania (11-12, 4-6 Ivy) at Columbia (10-13, 4-6 Ivy), Saturday, 7 p.m.
SK:
Don't look now... but here come the Penn Quakers, winners of four straight following an 0-6 start in conference play. Steve Donahue's team isn't just winning, they've been steamrolling the competition. Penn has won its last four games by an average of just under 17 points. As a result, the Quakers have moved into a tie for fourth place in the conference with a 4-6 record against Ivy League opponents. 

In previous years, Penn's fourth-place standing in the conference wouldn't have mattered much. Until this season, the Ivy League did not have a conference tournament and would simply send its regular season champion to the NCAA Tournament. This year that would have likely been Princeton, which has a perfect 10-0 league record and a two-game lead over second place Harvard. But times have changed. The first ever Ivy League Tournament will be played next month, with the top four teams squaring off at the Palestra for the right to earn the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. So not only does Penn have a shot at playing their way into the Big Dance, they could potentially do so with a homecourt advantage. 

But first things first. Penn hits the road this weekend to visit Cornell on Friday and Columbia on Saturday, a pair of teams the Quakers beat two weeks ago. Things figure to be tougher on the road, but I'm not betting against this resurgent Penn team. They'll be focused on improving their chances of advancing to postseason play -- particularly against Columbia, who is tied with Penn for fourth place in the conference. 

Expect more big things from freshman guard Ryan Betley. The Downingtown native is averaging a shade under 21 points in his last three games and has given the Quakers a sorely needed consistent perimeter threat to complement freshman big man AJ Brodeur. Betley, Brodeur and company will creep closer to an invitation to the Ivy League Tournament with a pair of wins this weekend.

Penn 71, Cornell 66
Penn 73, Columbia 70

Drexel (9-21, 3-14 CAA) at Charleston (22-8, 13-4 CAA), Saturday, 5 p.m.
AF:
 This is it for the Drexel Dragons. Senior day earlier this week wrapped up the home portion of the schedule. But it was not a happy send off as JMU spoiled the seniors final game at the DAC, winning by six. Once again, however, a freshman stole the show for Zach Spiker's group. Kurk Lee led the Dragons with 18 points. He's really coming into his own, both shooting and defensively. Lee has shown range as well, making four three-pointers in that loss to the Dukes and shooting 50 percent from the field. 

Next up, a tough ending on a even tougher season. A visit with Charleston, who has kept pace with conference leader UNCW. If you're looking for a fun, sleeper team in the NCAA Tournament, do yourself a favor and tune in for the CAA title game. These two are on a collision course and are playing great right now. One of the two will be in the NCAA tournament and providing they aren't a 16-seed, could win their first round matchup. 

This one won't be pretty for Drexel. It's Charleston's senior day and the Cougars are looking to go into the CAA tournament with momentum.   

Charleston 83, Drexel 65

Prediction Records
Sean Kane: 25-10
Amy Fadool: 22-13

Cazmon Hayes' 20 points not enough for Delaware in loss to Charleston

Cazmon Hayes' 20 points not enough for Delaware in loss to Charleston

BOX SCORE

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Jarrell Brantley scored 21 points, Joe Chealey added 20 and they both had a double-double in Charleston's 78-65 victory over Delaware on Thursday night.

Charleston (22-8, 13-4 Colonial Athletic Association) has won three straight and remains a game back of UNC Wilmington atop the conference standings. Delaware (12-18, 5-12) has lost consecutive games after winning three in a row.

Brantley and Chealey grabbed 10 rebounds apiece, and Marquise Pointer added 11 points for the Cougars, who made 25 of 29 (86 percent) free throws. Chealey also had seven assists and Brantley blocked three shots.

Cazmon Hayes scored 20 points to lead the Blue Hens.

Charleston closed the first half on an 8-2 surge and led 34-28 at the break. The Cougars opened the second half on a 20-6 run, including a Brantley dunk and capped by Pointer's 3-pointer for a 20-point lead. Delaware pulled within 10 points but didn't get closer.