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December 14, 2016

Right now, Josh Hart is the best player in college basketball

The tale has been told a few times, but it bears repeating: When Jay Wright first saw Josh Hart play a high school game, the purpose of his visit was to actually recruit another player (Rhode Island’s Stanford Robinson) on the advice of his assistant coaches.

There was one problem with the original plan. Hart, who attended prestigious Sidwell Friends School (so prestigious that President Obama, who sent his daughters there, pointed it out when the Wildcats visited the White House earlier this year), happened to be making all of the plays. He was attacking the rim, getting to the foul line, grabbing rebounds, and getting steals.

You know, Josh Hart stuff. And right away, Wright was hooked.

“I was there to watch somebody else and I’m thinking, ‘I can’t help but watch this guy,’” Wright recalled. “He’s on the foul line the whole time, he’s out in transition the whole time. I’m not getting to see the guy I’m here to see because Josh is dominating this game. And I said to my assistants, ‘We got to recruit that guy.’”

High school recruiting is an inexact science, but in this case, Wright’s instincts were right on. Hart wasn’t a complete unknown — by the end of his senior year, he was ranked 92nd in his class by ESPN and 84th by Rivals — but his other final choices besides ‘Nova were Penn State (coached by Wright’s former assistant, Patrick Chambers) and Rutgers, not exactly basketball powerhouses. It’s safe to say that Hart wasn’t at the level of a blue-chip, can’t-miss, five-star prospect.

None of that matters now, of course, because already with a national championship under his belt, Hart has been every bit of the best player in college basketball at the quarter pole of his senior season. Full stop.

Want to go by the numbers? Hart has built a nice lead in Ken Pomeroy’s player of the year race. How about storylines? Hart is the leading scorer on the top team in the country and defending national champions. If you watch any Villanova game, Hart always looks like the best guy on the floor, passing the ol’ eye test.

When asked if he felt he had anything to prove coming into the season, Hart said that he didn’t.

“I just focus on getting better, and I felt like I did that this summer,” he said. “Definitely with my decision making, getting other guys involved, making other guys better. That’s something I knew I had to get a lot better in that aspect, and that’s just paying off right now.

“I’m just trying to take what the defense gives me. If they throw two guys at me, make the right pass. If I’m able get up a good shot one-on-one, do that.”

Notre Dame played Hart straight up, preferring to stick with Kris Jenkins and Villanova’s shooters. A solid strategy, Notre Dame was successful in limiting the Wildcats to 4-16 from beyond the arc. And because of it, the Irish were almost able to knock off the No. 1 team in the country.

Hart simply wouldn’t allow that to happen, though. The 6-foot-5 senior took the single coverage he was faced with and absolutely punished it, finishing with an NBA stat line: 37 points (10-14 FG, 14-14 FT), 11 rebounds, 4 assists, and two steals.

In Hart’s case, the question of “What do you have to prove?” is an interesting one. After all, he already was the best all-around player on a title team. Hart did test the NBA Draft waters without hiring an agent after last season, and after working out both at the combine and individually with a bunch of teams, he decided to come back to the Main Line for one last go-round.

Still, the question remained: In terms of college legacy and NBA stock alike, what did you Hart have to prove? According to his coach, the answer was fairly simple.

Just get better, in every aspect.

“One NBA team might want you to be a better shooter,” Wright said. “Another NBA team might want you to pass better. You can’t listen to that, you got to just be the best, complete player you can be. Be good at everything and improve in every area, and then let them pick who they want.

“And I think he’s done a great job of that. I think he’s working in every aspect of his game: defense, rebounding, decision making, ball handling, shooting and leadership.”

He’s not kidding. Hart was already one of a handful of the best players in the country as a junior, and right now, he’s flat-out better across the board. Most notably, as Hart himself pointed out, is the improvement in his floor game, raising his assist rate while also cutting down on the turnovers.

 ORtg 117.7 138.1

“When you have a guy like that who is one of the leaders of your team, you can’t help but follow because the M.O. is we all need to get better, we all need to keep improving,” Darryl Reynolds said.

Hart and everyone in the Villanova program would be the first ones to tell you that there is still a lot of season left. They would be correct, but so far, so good.

Against Temple on Tuesday night, Hart wasn’t completely on his game as he, Reynolds, and Jenkins completed a career sweep of the Big Five. “Not on his game” in this case means 26 points on 10-19 shooting with three each of assists and steals without a turnover:

With a little over eight minutes left in the game and Villanova holding a 26-point lead, Jalen Brunson had the ball stolen from him. With Hart back on defense, promising Temple freshman Quinton Rose put his head down and attacked the rim in a manner that his opposite number would in transition. Rose lost the ball out of bounds on his own, but the referee initially ruled that it deflected off Hart.

“That didn’t hit me!” Hart yelled, shaking his head.

The referees conferred, and they eventually made the correct call: Villanova basketball. You see, Josh Hart, the best player on the top team in college hoops, is someone everyone has to pay attention to.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann