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Villanova's sixth man is Hart of team

At first, Josh Hart thought not starting was a demotion, but he’s become an integral part of the Wildcats’ success.

Villanova's Josh Hart. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Villanova's Josh Hart. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)Read more

IN VILLANOVA'S original plan, 6-5 sophomore guard Josh Hart was penciled in as one of Jay Wright's first five. Which meant 6-2 redshirt junior guard Dylan Ennis was going to be his first sub.

Then, things changed. As did roles. Maybe even perceptions.

In the long run it was a move that benefitted everyone. And, most indeliby, the whole.

"Dylan had struggled his sophomore year, and Josh had a great freshman year," said Wright, whose second-ranked Wildcats (32-2), having already set a program record for wins, are the top seed in the NCAA Tournament's East Regional, which for them begins Thursday night in Pittsburgh against Lafayette (22-10). "We thought Dylan would be more effective than Josh, and Josh wound up being better. So we just assumed Josh would be the starter.

"But Dylan came back in the summer and was off the charts. So we said, 'OK, let's see what happens in the fall.' And Dylan just continued off the charts. He was playing great, and Josh would really be the perfect sixth man. But if Josh wanted, we would have started him. We were concerned about telling him, because he's a prideful guy. And he didn't like it. He didn't complain, he was quiet, but you just know how competitive he is. He never said anything. The next day at practice he played his butt off like he always did. And in games he was awesome.

"Then you kind of forget about it, because he was so good."

So good that he became the second Wildcat to win the Big East's Sixth Man Award. And then became the first non-starter to win the conference tournament's Most Outstanding Player, as the Wildcats won the title for the first time in two decades.

Who knew?

"It kind of reminded you that, wow, this kid was going to start," Wright went on. "Instead, he just made himself into a great sixth man."

On a team that in reality has six starters.

"I was definitely disappointed, a little frustrated," admitted Hart, who averaged 10.4 points and 4.4 rebounds in 26 minutes a game while shooting nearly 47 percent from the arc, a 15 percent improvement from his first season. "I struggled with it for the first week or so. It took some getting used to. Now, it's something I really treasure. I've grown into it. It's something that's important to the success of any team.

"I have to go out there and give my team energy and a spark. I just had to get comfortable being that guy. It says a lot about the confidence and trust the team has in me, that I can just go out and play basketball. When you look at a lot of teams, the bench is lacking. I don't want them to say that about this team. But if you'd told me 5 months ago that I would have won these awards, I would have told you you were crazy."

Ennis, by the way, is averaging almost 10 points and 4 boards, to go with 3.5 assists, in his 28 minutes. Some combo, for a group that goes eight deep and has seven of them scoring between 10.4 and 5.6.

"I treat it as I'm going to get in," said Hart, who averaged 17.6 points on 21-for-29 shooting (9-for-14 from three) in three games last week in New York, where he was Villanova's high scorer twice (in the final Ennis finished with one more than him). "When I do, I have to be ready. Whatever the team needs. It's something I take very seriously. It's not like I'm wondering when I'm going to get my chance.

"Everybody wants to start. But to a coach, it's who's going to end the game. And I've been in a lot of those situations. That means a lot. Everyone was a star in high school. It's hard at first to come in and know you have to kind of put in your time. When I first saw these guys play I thought, 'I'm not sure how it's going to go for me.' Then you see them playing their butts off, doing all the little things, it makes you want to do it for them. You put your personal goals aside and just go to war."

For Hart, just getting to the Main Line was a big deal. He was considered the second-best recruit in the Washington, D.C. area as a senior at Sidwell Friends, behind current teammate Kris Jenkins, a shooter who's averaging 6.4 in close to 19 minutes. The other schools he was considering were Rutgers and Penn State.

He comes from a strong family, and Wright credits Hart's parents with helping him get through his "demotion."

"Every coach says we recruit character, and we all do," Wright said. "But you don't know what they're going to be like until you get them here. But his [mom and dad] talked about him becoming a man, working hard and doing the right things.

"He came from a public school to [a Quaker school]. In his first 2 years he didn't do well academically, and they were going to ask him to leave. All the parents of the guys on the team said we'll tutor him, if you give him a chance. They wrote letters to the school and they kept him. It's an incredible story. It's quite an amazing family. It's the parents and the AAU coaches who go crazy and get the kid all worked up. They don't take any credit, but I wanted them to know he won [these awards] because they're good people."

The story will only get better if the Wildcats can make their first deep run in the story since the 2009 squad reached the national semifinals. Last March they lost their second game as a 2-seed.

"We can't go in thinking we're better than we are," Hart cautioned. "We know anything can happen. That's given us that extra bump we need to keep being hungry.

"In the Big East Tournament we played together. That's the main thing. But our season wasn't just to win a conference tournament. We have bigger goals.

"This experience has been humbling. I can't thank my teammates enough. They've been behind me all the way. It's not about personal success. They're the reason I won the award . . . If I'd known how it was going to work out, I wouldn't have cared if I started."