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Kern: Villanova's Hart standing humbly in national spotlight

SO HOW DOES "Josh Hart, National Player of the Year" sound? Well, how about right up there with "Josh Hart, national champion."

SO HOW DOES "Josh Hart, National Player of the Year" sound? Well, how about right up there with "Josh Hart, national champion."

Villanova's versatile senior forward, who already has a ring from last April, is among the serious candidates in what appears to be a crowded competition. Maybe even your favorite. Despite the fact that he might not project as a lottery pick or wasn't considered a one-and-done guy when he was recruited.

So how does something like this happen?

"I've been working toward this since I was 7," said the 6-5 Hart, who ranks in the top 10 in the Big East in nine statistical categories. "Everything's coming to fruition, because of all that. So it doesn't surprise me when I hear that kind of talk. When you finally get to that point that you dreamed about . . .

"It's really high school all over again. I went to Sidwell (Friends, in Washington, D.C.). That tells you how much I had to prove. I was never the man, especially with Team Takeover (in AAU ball). It was always that way. I never cared about it. I just took pride in always being under the radar. Our team flies under the radar. There's something about this season that's like a microcosm of my life."

In last season's national semifinals, Naismith award winner Buddy Hield of Oklahoma had nine points, 16 below his average, and four turnovers in a Final Four-record 44-point loss to the Wildcats. Hart finished with a game-high 23 points on 10-for-12 shooting, eight rebounds and four assists for the supposedly starless eventual champs.

Now the second-ranked Wildcats are 26-2, which is two wins better than they were 12 months ago. Who figured? And they're doing it without two starters. And lately without their only center, as well. Yet all they do is keep getting it done, which tends to get the most go-to guy noticed.

"It's not just about scoring," said Hart, who averages a conference-best 18.8 to go with six boards and 3.3 assists. "Everything I do helps this team go. It's about how many games did you win. Did you take charges? Did you dive on the floor for loose balls? If we win the rest of our games, I'll take that.

"I talked to (Hield) several times since then. He deserved to be the Player of the Year. But I'll definitely take the trophy instead. If I could get both . . ."

In the last 15 seasons, only Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis in 2012 has been able to claim such a double.

If nothing else, coach Jay Wright believes Hart is the most complete talent out there.

"I thought when we got him he was going to be a warrior," Wright recalled. "You don't know how they're going to take to coaching. If he really listened, I thought he could possibly be an NBA player. But I never thought Big East player of the year or national player of the year candidate. He's been open to getting better.

"Where he's really amazing is his decision-making. There isn't anything he can't do. We can play him anywhere, against anybody. His game isn't sexy, but it's really efficient and well-rounded. He does whatever you need, with no complaints. Against Xavier (on Feb. 11), Darryl Reynolds was out and Eric Paschall gets in foul trouble. So we play him at the 'five' spot, and he gets seven defensive rebounds. And even when he doesn't get the rebound, he's banging with 6-10 guys."

And it didn't seem to matter that he scored only 11, which was less than three teammates. But he had five assists and four steals, and the Wildcats won by 16 at a place that's not easy to play in. So there is that.

More than anything, Hart has never made it about himself. Like so many that have come before, there's a singular purpose: Villanova basketball. It's their mantra. And while that can become redundant for some, it works for them. As if anything else counts.

"When Arch (Ryan Arcidiacono) and Daniel (Ochefu) were here, Josh was kind of like a hired gun," Wright said. "Now that he's one of our senior leaders, he's handled that part of it. That comes from his parents. He gets on the phone with them before every game and prays. They're such humble people. So we get the benefit of that.

"Even going through the (evaluation) process with the NBA last spring, I never saw anyone go through that in such a humble way. There was no ego. It wasn't like, 'They don't think I'm a first-round pick, I'm upset.' It was, 'OK, I'm going to come back and work on what they told me to work on.' He never questioned their evaluation. He's been the same way all year. When he gets double-teamed, he passes the ball. And the other kids see that. I don't have to say anything. It's the greatest example of who we are. All they have to do is watch him."

Hart does acknowledge that initially the stuff the NBA folks were telling him didn't sit too well. But he decided to do the only thing he could do, which is try to turn it into a motivator.

"Some teams said they'd take me in the second round if I was there," Hart said. "I didn't want to leave here early to be a second-round possibility. I was hurting for the first couple of days. I definitely sulked a little. After that, it was time to grow up. It left a bit of a chip on my shoulder. But I think it made me the player I am now.

"If I sulked about it, that would only hurt the team. They don't need to see that. I'm not more important than anyone else. I have to be a role model. If I was more worried about the NBA, it could be a problem. I was frustrated, obviously, but I knew I was just going to put everything I could into making this team the best we can be."

And here they are. Who knows how high is up this time around? Some wondered how much the Wildcats would miss Arch and Ochefu and even the three walk-on seniors who carried so much clout within the locker room. Now the program is in the hands of Hart, Kris Jenkins and Reynolds, with the likes of Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges awaiting their turn. It's been different, but no less successful.

"You have to accept that you're going to be held accountable," Hart said. "I watched for three years how the older guys sacrificed, and you want to do that. Don't get me wrong, sometimes it's a struggle. I'm not perfect at it. I think coach will tell you that. But I'm getting there. I'm trying to show the younger guys the right way.

"Ryan and D.O. had their style. We're not them. Every class has their own identity. I had to be learn to be more focused, not just on game days. You have to bust your butt every drill in practice. You're the senior. They're counting on us. That's where it starts. It's our job to make sure we're ready for any situation. I think we all have that in us."

Whatever makes Hart tick, he knows where it came from.

"That's how I was raised," he insisted. "I had two hardworking people who gave me everything they had, so I could have a better life. And they never did it for any acknowledgment. When you see that for 18 years, it becomes part of you. It rubs off in everything you do. How can you not be humble? Or be arrogant?

"Player of the Year is a team award. That's what it would really mean. It's not like, 'OK, give Josh the ball at the top of the key and set a high ball screen' like 80 percent of the time. When you're a guy who's not a freak of nature or has like a smoothness to his game, you can get overlooked. I'm just trying to make sure we continue in the right direction."

So you thought 123-15 already sounded like a pretty incredible ride.