NEWARK, N.J. - This was later. Josh Hart had already done his thing and deconstructed it. Villanova teammate Mikal Bridges had explained what he just seen from Hart inside the Prudential Center on a memorable day. A question for Jay Wright: Can he live with Hart's being the favorite for national college player of the year?
"Yeah, yeah,'' Wright said, not hesitating, skipping past Hart's career-high 37 points (and the 11 rebounds and 14-for-14 free throws) in Saturday's 74-66 win over Notre Dame. "Because you heard him,'' praising the way Hart had just handled himself, and going back to when he tested the waters for the NBA after last season, handling that "so cleanly and simply."
Never mind that Villanova had only one double-digit scorer, how that was enough. Put aside Hart's 37 for a second. The top-ranked Wildcats had been down nine, less than 13 minutes left, when Hart drove and got fouled and hit his free throws. Next possession, layup. Two after that, catch-and-shoot three-pointer. Another drive. And another. A feed to Bridges on the break. Just over nine minutes left, 'Nova up one.
Hart kept going, went right at his man and drew a foul. Keep him in front of you? You try it. Hart saw a mismatch and a layup ensued about three seconds later. The game had flipped. Hart had flipped it.
That wasn't conscious, Hart said of any need to take over. If he made it conscious - "OK, I've got to go get buckets" - then if they're taking those buckets away, he said, he wouldn't be making the right decisions. Up 20, down 20, same thought process. "That's something I truly believe in,'' said Hart, who also had four assists and just one turnover, adding to the efficiency of his 10-for-14 shooting day, including 3 of 4 on threes. He played 37 minutes, all 20 after halftime.
"What he's really doing down six is just bringing everybody together,'' Wright said. "We clip from the La Salle game, how many times in huddles on the court he grabbed guys by the head and rubbed their head, pulled them in. He's just been an incredible leader."
On the day Hart rose above his team, Wright was lauding how that fits into the team. Hart was always unselfish, Wright said, but it's his decision-making that has improved so markedly. Wright called him as complete a player now "as we've ever had."
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey explained later that the Irish needed to take away Villanova's overall three-point shooting. That worked: Hart's teammates finished 1 of 12 from beyond the arc. So if Hart hadn't gone to the hoop, if he tried to make passes to shooters that weren't open, that would have been forcing things.
"Our feeling was, if they really lit us up from the three-point line, now they're scoring 90 instead of in the 70s,'' Brey said. "We didn't help a whole lot because it was twos.''
He meant Villanova was scoring two-pointers. The strategy was solid. Except Notre Dame, usually a most efficient offensive group, made only 2 of 11 three-pointers in the second half. They averaged 41.3 percent from three coming in, and came out hot. "We were hoping our offense could be efficient enough to be in the 70s."
"His strength - he's got great strength,'' Brey said of Hart. "From watching him last year and now seeing him live in front of me for two hours, there is a great mental and physical toughness. He really kind of drives that group."
This national player of the year talk hardly came out of the blue. Hart walked in Saturday as one of the favorites. He got back on the bus as the clear favorite. He probably should have been all along as the best player on the best team. If the guys from last season's Oklahoma team got votes he'd probably already have the trophy.
"He makes the right play every time,'' Bridges said. "If he sees an opening, he goes strong, aggressive. If somebody steps up, he's going to make the pass."
Getting a big head from all this? Won't happen, Hart said. He's got a "small circle" around him and his coach - "Coach Wright is on me constantly and constantly and constantly.''
That's why it's interesting here, that Wright is all right with Hart's standing out from the crowd a bit. Maybe it's just that you can't deny the obvious. Hart's scoring average rose from 17.6 points a game to 19.5. He's over 7 rebounds a game. It's all serving an obvious larger purpose.
"Keep putting the foot on the pedal,'' Hart said.