Like Coach, Like Captain



Larry Flynn


               Josh Hart walks into the Big East Championship postgame press conference with a net – the net – around his neck. He practically owned it (29 points) during the game; who else would be more deserving to take the beauty home?

               He jokes with the media. “Are you happy?” asks a reporter, noting the muted celebration of the Big East Champs following their 74-60 win over the Creighton BlueJays. Yes, Hart says, laughing. He credits Creighton for their toughness and sighs. “Part of it,” he says, “was just… exhaustion.”

               So much of Hart is left behind on the court – the buckets, the sweat. It feels like “Josh Hart, Villanova Guard” has been etched into this Madison Square Garden hardwood beside names like Kemba Walker, Carmelo Anthony and Patrick Ewing. Incredible, then, that he conquered “The Mecca,” a stage Hart has long admired and looked upon with boyish wonder.


               Flashback a season – to 2016. Hart has finished a practice and is getting ready to play St. John’s in a regular season Big East matchup. He’s politely fielding question from a few lonely reporters, who ask him what it feels like to play at “The Mecca” in New York City.

               “Man,” Hart says, staring up at the ceiling. “You dream about that as a kid – making the game-winner at MSG, you know? It’s a special place.”


               “The Garden” is special, but so is Hart. And his coach knows it.

               “He’s the best – most complete – player in the country,” Wright says. He surveys the press as if to say, yeah, I said it. “Going into this tournament, I think he put it all together. It was his leadership, his decision-making, his defense, his rebounding.”

               Wright says he sensed something in his senior leader before the tournament. Hart admits he was dialed in, but that’s hardly the point. A certain synergy has been cultivated as the disciple sits beside his leader. They know each other’s rhythms, right down to the heartbeat. They remember their lows, together. They remember their highs, together.


               Flashback two seasons – to 2015. Villanova has just won the Big East Championship for the first time since 1995. The Wildcats celebrate frivolously – a harsh reality which will haunt them in the tournament weeks later – but in this moment, they deserve it. Champions celebrate.

               Guess who sits beside Wright at the podium? The Big East Tournament MVP: Josh Hart. He smiles, but is hardly relaxed; he’s not yet accustomed to the perpetual media attention garnered by players like Darrun Hilliard and Ryan Arcidiacono. But the sixth-man of the conference outplayed these name-brands and paced the Wildcats with 17.7 ppg over the three game span. MVP as a sophomore? Something special began brewing in “The Garden.”


               “He was tournament MVP as a sophomore,” Wright reminds the crowd, “and he’s better in every aspect of the game. Which is amazing if you think about it.”

               Peyton Silva and Patrick Ewing are the only other players to do what Hart has done tonight – to win the Big East Tournament MVP twice. Silva and Ewing are Big East legends. As is Hart.

               It’s been quite a journey for Hart, aided by the man sitting beside him. Wright gets on Hart’s case, as he does with all his players, but the senior captain loves it more than anyone.

               “You don’t want him to get complacent,” Hart says. “But yeah, at times,” he laughs, “it’s difficult when he’s on you.”

               His demeanor feels as loose as ever in part because, yes, he’s a champion. But the senior guard has become so comfortable winning, so comfortable dominating, and so comfortable here – up on the podium next to his coach.


               Flashback three seasons – to 2013. It’s a nippy December evening and Villanova has just completed a 20-point routine blowout of another futile non-conference opponent, Rider. Hart, a freshman, led the team in scoring with 19 points and the youngster steps up to the podium next to his coach. It’s his first appearance in a postgame press conference at Villanova. He gives boilerplate answers: “We played Villanova basketball for 40 minutes.” His coach, however, makes the statement of the presser.

               “Josh [Hart] could average 30 is he wanted to,” Wright says. He sees the surprised looks on the media’s faces – “Yeah, really.”

               Wright doubled down. He’d either look like a genius or a fool.


               Wright may have expected Hart to turn into a dominant force, but it’s safe to assume he had no idea he’d be serenaded by his senior leader in front of the press, here, tonight.

               “Coach was talking to us, telling us the truth,” Hart begins, “telling us honestly that we have to get better. When you have a coach who has accomplished everything that he’s accomplished, there’s no better example than that.”

               Hart pauses for a moment – “um” – looking down at the podium, then back at the media. “You don’t have to look other places,” he says. “He keeps wanting to get better as a coach. He keeps wanting us as a team to get better. So I guess I’m following his lead.”

               Wright is holding a water bottle. He stares at it as he’s asked if Villanova has earned a number one overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.

               “Probably,” he says, “probably. But I’m more excited about what he just said right there.” Wright smiles and points to his left, where the team’s on-court leader smiles too, looking down at the podium. And in this moment something becomes abundantly clear; Wright’s philosophy has stuck with Hart, yes, but Hart has rubbed off on his coach too. His net – their net – sparkles a bit under the spotlights.