Hart embraces unique role with Wildcats, wins Most Outstanding Player of Big East Tournament



Frank Scicchitano

Late in the second half of Villanova’s victory over Xavier in the Big East Tournament Championship Game last Saturday, sophomore guard Josh Hart attempted a 3-point shot that clanked off the front of the rim and headed back toward him.  Reacting quickly, he blew through the paint, stole the rebound away from two Musketeers, and followed smoothly with a layup for the last of his 15 points on the night.

Plays like this have earned Hart the title of “energy player” and he is beloved by Villanova fans for his tremendous hustle coming in off the bench.  

But he is not your traditional “sixth man”. Averaging more than 25 minutes of playing time per contest, Hart is often referred to as the Wildcats’ “sixth starter.”  

Nevertheless, Hart’s consistently strong performances during the regular season and his success in the role of Villanova’s first player off the bench earned him recognition as the Big East Sixth Man of the Year. 

Last weekend at Madison Square Garden, Hart took another step toward becoming a superstar when he became the first bench player ever to be named Most Outstanding Player of the Big East Tournament.

“I’ve just got to say it’s a great honor, and it’s definitely humbling,” Hart said in the press conference following the Wildcats’ victory on Saturday night.

“I’ve got to shout out my teammates,” Hart continued.  “When you have the confidence of your teammates, you’re able to go out there, play, and have fun.”

And that’s what Hart did– played and had fun.

In the Wildcats’ opening game against Marquette, Hart sparked the flame that would keep him hot for the entire tournament by connecting on five 3-pointers and finishing with 20 points, tying his second-highest total of the season.

His success continued in the semifinal round when Villanova held on for a two-point victory over Providence.  In that game, Hart had three more 3s including one with less than two minutes remaining that gave the Wildcats a five-point lead.

Hart went 7-of-10 from the field for the second consecutive game and finished the night with 18 points.  Heading into the finals on Saturday night, he was 8-for-13 from beyond the arc and was Villanova’s most efficient offensive weapon.

In the championship game, Hart recorded his lowest total of the tournament with 15 points, but made an impact on the glass by grabbing seven rebounds, which was tied for the team-high.  He finished the weekend averaging over 17 points per contest and shot no worse than 70 percent from the field in any of the Wildcats’ three games.

During the postgame celebration of Villanova’s championship, Fox Sports’ Gus Johnson announced Hart as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player amidst ecstatic cheers and chants from his team.  This genuine excitement for Hart’s achievement is part of the reason that he credits his teammates as key contributors to his success on the court.

“I can’t thank [my teammates] enough. They took me under their wing the past two years,” Hart said on Monday.  “They’re making me want to play as hard as I can [and] they don’t want me to get complacent.”

Senior forward Jayvaughn Pinkston is well aware of his personal duty to prevent any sense of complacency from entering Hart’s mind.

“Josh came in as a good player, now he’s just turning into a superstar,” Pinkston said in regards to his young teammate.  “He’s got some things to work on and he’s going to continue to get better.

“I think he’s coming along faster than me and Darrun [Hilliard] did, especially because he’s just a sophomore winning the MVP of the Big East Championship Tournament.  He just has to continue to get better.”

Along with his teammates, Hart also publically acknowledged his mother and father following the announcement that he had been named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.  

Head Coach Jay Wright also credited Hart’s parents as a major reason that his young rising star was able to take on a role that is often challenging for players and their families to accept.

“They never said, ‘Is he going to start?’ or ‘Is he going to play?’” Wright explained. “They talked about him getting an education, getting a degree, being a good student and becoming a man – all the time.”

This attitude and support from Hart’s family helped him deal with the initial disappointment of not being named to the starting lineup at the beginning of the season.

“I was definitely disappointed, a little frustrated,” Hart recalled.  “I had a lot of things going through my mind.  I struggled with it for the first week or so, getting used to it.”

He quickly realized, though, that his role on the team was just as important as the five starters and that his contributions were crucial to the Wildcats’ overall success as a unit.

“I definitely treat it as something that’s important,” Hart said.  “I feel like I can really contribute to this team.  With a lot of teams, their benches are lacking and that’s something I don’t want [people] to say about this team.”

Hart’s importance to the Wildcats was seen early and often, as he was a critical part of Villanova’s 13-0 start to the regular season.  He averaged 12.5 points per game in Big Five play this season, including a 20-point performance against Temple on Dec. 14 that earned him the title of Big Five Player of the Week.

The following weekend, Hart joined his senior role models Pinkston and Hilliard as the three combined for 69 of Villanova’s 82 points in its comeback victory over Syracuse.  Hart finished with a season-high 21 points and hit a 3-pointer with 14 seconds remaining to bring the Wildcats within two points of tying the Orange.

After a Pinkston layup tied the game and sent it to overtime, Hart made five of six free throw attempts in the extra period to help seal ’Nova’s comeback victory at the Wells Fargo Center.

Entering the NCAA Tournament, Hart is the Big East’s most efficient 3-point shooter, connecting on 46.8 percent of his attempts.  He noted a definite improvement in his shooting ability, and the coaching staff is very optimistic about other strides he will take in the future.

“Honestly, he’s about halfway there to what he can be.”  Wright said about the potential of his “sixth man.”  “He really can be a great player.  We all hear about the sophomore jinx, and he came back and had a better sophomore year, which is really difficult to do.”

It is not in the nature of Villanova Basketball to look further ahead than the very next game, but it is safe to say that “sixth man” Josh Hart will finally find his home in the starting five next season.

For now, though, he will remain a “sixth starter” as he and the Wildcats prepare to make a deep run as a No. 1 seed in this year’s edition of March Madness.