PITTSBURGH - Josh Hart was the Big East's sixth man of the year and its postseason tournament's most outstanding player, yet it was only recently that his Villanova teammates stopped making fun of him. A sophomore guard, Hart has always thought of himself as a shooter.
He has, said Villanova assistant coach Baker Dunleavy, "amazing confidence," even during his freshman season, when he made just 31 percent of his three-point attempts. It was that amazing confidence, and the Wildcats' opponents' total disregard for it, that led to all the teasing.
Hart's teammates couldn't help but notice how other teams defended him. There was always a halo of space around him, in part because Hart is 6-foot-5 and likes to drive to the basket and can jump out of the gym, in part because nobody feared his taking a 20-foot jumper.
"Some teams wouldn't play him as a shooter," Villanova coach Jay Wright said, "and the guys would laugh at him about that because they knew he took great pride in working on his shot. And now, he's kind of cocky with them about it. 'You used to bust my chops about this? Now everybody plays me as a shooter.' "
They have to: Hart has shot a team-high 47.3 percent from three-point range, making 52 of his 110 tries. And in an NCAA tournament and a college basketball season that have been characterized by a rampant inability to send a leather-and-rubber ball through a metal hoop, he has been an invaluable asset for the Wildcats (33-2), one more reason to believe they can reach the program's first Final Four since 2009.
"We emphasize to him, 'When you're open and in rhythm, catch to shoot,' " Dunleavy said Friday, one day before No. 1 seed Villanova's round-of-32 matchup in the East Regional against eighth-seeded North Carolina State. "The majority of his attempts have been spot-up three-pointers. He's smart enough to know his strength isn't a step-back three-point shot off the dribble. He's done a great job of being disciplined and knowing his strengths."
To Hart, his improvement has been a gradual process, a product of the extra time he has put in working on his shot with Dunleavy. The two go through the same drills every day, sometimes for five minutes, sometimes for 20, starting with one-handed layups and moving farther and farther from the basket until Hart is beyond the three-point arc.
"We go back to basics," said Hart, who is averaging 10.3 points a game this season. "We focus on my ball placement so that when I'm in a game, I'm not thinking about, 'How am I going to shoot this? Am I shooting it on the way up? Do I have a hitch in my shot?' He just brings me back to the fundamentals, to the first time I really ever shot a basketball."
Hart doesn't have an orthodox shooting style. In an effort to keep the ball off the palm of his right hand and better control the ball's flight, he releases each shot from the very edges of his fingertips; the basketball at times appears to be hovering a few centimeters from his fingernails.
He also has, Dunleavy said, "a violent snap of the wrist. But if he sets the ball in the right place, it creates great rotation. The one thing that's really consistent on his shot is that he has great action on it. Right as he lets it go, he had a tendency to hold it at the top, pause, and fling it, as opposed to letting it go on the way up in a smooth motion. His shot's gotten a lot smoother over the year."
There was a moment, though, that Wright suggested was a turning point for Hart: In the second half of Villanova's 78-66 victory at Xavier on Feb. 28, Hart was hit in the mouth during a scramble for the ball and needed stitches to close a gash on his lip. He missed 12 minutes of game action, but within 15 seconds of reentering, he buried his only three-point attempt of the game.
Including that shot, he has made 15 of his 25 three-pointers, a robust 60 percent clip, over the Wildcats' last seven games. "From that point on," Wright said, "he felt, 'I'm not just a good shooter. I'm a big-time shooter, a big-game shooter, a big-shot shooter.' " His teammates now act accordingly. So must North Carolina State on Saturday night, if it's to have any chance.