Josh Hart says there were three simple reasons why he won outstanding player honors in leading Villanova to the 2015 Big East tournament title, and their names were Darrun Hilliard, JayVaughn Pinkston, and Ryan Arcidiacono.

"The biggest thing is that we had Darrun, JP, and Ryan on the team," he said Monday. "[Opponents] were really looking to shut them down, so that gave me the ability to kind of go out there and just play basketball. I wasn't number one, number two, or number three on their scouting report. I was at the bottom.

"With all the good players we had on our team, that helped me play well because of all the attention they drew."

Hart was named Big East sixth man of the year before last year's tournament, but his game took a step up at Madison Square Garden, where he averaged 17.7 points in three games while shooting 72.4 percent (21 of 29) from the field and 64.3 percent (9 of 14) from three-point range.

The Wildcats return to the Garden to defend their title on Thursday, meeting the winner of Wednesday night's opening-round game between eighth-seeded Georgetown and No. 9 DePaul. With Hilliard and Pinkston having graduated, the 6-foot-5 Hart is no secret any more, with a team-high 15.3-point average and a unanimous selection to the all-Big East first team.

Villanova coach Jay Wright said Hart's improvement late last season centered on better focus in big games, something that he's done more consistently this season in all games.

"Last year, everything was funny, everything was a joke, but he was respectful," Wright said. "At the end of the season, the Big East tournament, in his mind, that was a big game, so he stepped it up. What we tried to teach him this year was, you can't let outside influences dictate whether you think a game is important or not.

"You have to determine as a player: Every game you step on the floor is important for you. We've been working on it and he's getting better and better. I think he's really getting there now. It makes a big difference."

Hart has scored in double figures in all but two games this season and has eight double-doubles to his credit, indicative of his rank as the best rebounding guard in the Big East. He is shooting nearly 51 percent from the field, and has connected on 63.3 percent of his shots in the last three games.

"His focus every single day in practice has been a lot better," Arcidiacono said. "He's been getting better throughout the year. He's one of the leaders on our team and clearly our best player. When he defends and rebounds and gets out in transition, we're a very tough team to stop."

The Wildcats have won three straight since their Feb. 24 loss at Xavier, but Hart echoes his coach when he says, "We've got to continue to get better."

"Our defense has to get a lot better," he said. "It's something that we have to work on this week. Definitely I feel confident going into the tournament, but we're going to have to play every game like it's our last. Every game is important there."

jjuliano@phillynews.com

@joejulesinq