Patrick Ewing. Peyton Siva. Josh Hart.
Three outstanding basketball players. Arguably some of the best to ever be a part of the Big East Conference. Three great athletes, dedicated team members, and insanely hard workers. They’re also the only three people in the history of the Big East Tournament to be named the Most Outstanding Player not once, but twice.
“It’s amazing he was the tournament MVP as a sophomore,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “He is better in every aspect of the game. He’s such a better player, which is amazing if you think about it, that he won it and he is better in every aspect of the game.”
Shortly before the Big East Tournament began, he was named the Big East Player of the Year, lauded for his accomplishments throughout the regular season. All eyes were on him and if he didn’t deliver, the award would have been quickly tarnished in just a few days. Except, he did.
Not only did Villanova acquire its second Big East Tournament title in three years, he was a cornerstone, surely backing up his accomplishment for the regular season by continuing his high level of play in the postseason.
“He put the team on his back last night, making the big plays” said Wright, after the championship game. “He’s just done everything. I think he’s a complete basketball player, I think he’s the best, most complete player in the country. And I’m sure I’m biased, I don’t spend time with those other guys, but I just don’t see anybody that does everything like he does.”
In the championship game, he saved the best for last. His 29-point performance spurred the Wildcats onto victory, and he was locked in from the beginning. He was 4-of-8 from deep, and made 7-of-8 free throw attempts. It capped off an excellent Big East Tournament, and if that wasn’t impressive, maybe his finishing blow on Seton Hall was. With the Wildcats down by one, he had the go-ahead putback layup for an and-one to put the ‘Cats up by two with seconds left in the game. It was the deathknell for the Pirates, who trailed for a majority of the game and exactly what Villanova needed to punch its ticket for one more night in New York.
It’s also quite possible that maybe his fierce demeanor on the court wasn’t impressive enough, and that it was the display of sportsmanship after just taking the game away from Seton Hall in the semifinals. He went straight to the Pirates’ star center Angel Delgado, who laid on the floor devastated. He had just botched what could have been a game-tying layup to go into overtime, instead the ball caromed off the rim and eventually into Hart’s hands, who threw it away to secure the Wildcat win. Hart consoled Delgado as a good sportsman, doing so for a member of a team that left the Wildcats shattered just a year earlier.
On top of his wonderful weekend, he also surpassed Ed Pinckney‘s 1,865 career points. Pinckney, who was the Most Outstanding Player of the 1985 NCAA Tournament, had sat in 10th place on Villanova’s all-time leading scorers list. With his big game against Creighton, Hart now has 1,891 points and moves into the top ten.
“Going into this tournament,” said Wright, “I just think he put it all together. It was his leadership, his decision making, his defense, his rebounding.”
The senior guard can’t really take all the credit, however, and he doesn’t even begin to try to. There was the man in the pinstripe suit, not so much behind the scenes, but there every step of the way to encourage, to motivate, and to demand more from a young man that he knew had the potential to make himself a household name.
“[Wright] wants us to keep getting better he wants us to keep being coachable,” Hart said. “Last night, we talked as a team and I think every team right now would be happy to be in their conference championship game. And coach, he was talking to us, he was telling us the truth and honestly telling us we have to get a lot better.”
Wright has seen a lot since entering the college basketball world as a coach. A protege of Rollie Massimino, he entered the Big East and Villanova in 1987, as an assistant coach to Massimino. He left the Main Line in 1992 to follow Massimino to UNLV, where he was an assistant for two years until taking a head coaching spot at Hofstra in 1994. It wasn’t until 2001 that he would return to Villanova as a head coach, and since then, has brought much success to the program.
As a coach, Wright has racked up over 500 wins, seen many great players come and go, five Big East regular season titles, five Big East Coach of the Year awards, two conference tournament crowns, and of course the granddaddy of them all–the national championship. Of course, Hart was present for some of those accolades, and it’s that experience that have kept both grounded. They know what it takes to reach the pinnacle of college basketball, and they both know there’s still work to be done.
“When you have a coach that has accomplished everything that he has accomplished, and he keeps talking about how we have to get better, there is no better example than that,” Hart said in staying focused. “You don’t have to look other places. He keeps wanting to get better as a coach, he keeps wanting us as a team to get better. I’m following his lead.”
It’s that ability to stay humble and focused with immense pressure–good and bad–looming all around the team, that’s so crucial to the Hart’s success, as well as the team’s.
The Final Four appearance in 2009 was a vacation. 2016 was a business trip, and the change in attitude showed. From their experience in reaching national kingship, they know it won’t be an easy task, expecting the job of staying humble and focused on correcting the little things to be the toughest challenge ahead–not the players in the opposite colored jerseys.
“You get a lot of attention,” Wright said. “We’re going to enjoy this. Then we’re going to go home and it’s going to be Selection Sunday and start dealing with all the repeat, 1 seed, all that. Handling all that is going to be the biggest obstacle.”
As the stakes continue to rise even higher with each passing day, the possibility of Hart’s basketball career coming to end–even preemptively–comes along with it.
So with all the points he’s scored, a membership in exclusive Big East company of tournament MVPs, and the trophies and awards that continue to pile onto his shelves–none of those matter amidst the pain that comes with heartbreak. He and his teammates experienced that twice, with those early tournament exits during his freshman and sophomore years.
Last season, he was a part of the storybook ending. Except, he’s reopening the book and adding another chapter into his story, but a tale of the journey to reaching the peak once again, and not a final reflection of his career. He’s not done yet, and the Wildcats don’t plan being finished anytime soon.
“I’m not thinking about that now,” said Hart, when asked which of his accomplishments are most impressive to him–dismissing the thought of putting his career into perspective.
“I’ve got one month left of my college basketball career, and I can’t think about that now.”