Villanova guard Josh Hart is the most under-appreciated star in the country

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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WASHINGTON — Josh Hart always dreamed of starring in the Verizon Center, of diving on the floor to corral a loose rebound in the final minute of a Big East battle, being the guy that made the play that won his team a game and earned him a standing ovation.

He just never thought he’d be doing it in a Villanova jersey.

Hart is from D.C., and like many kids that grow up in the District, he was a diehard Georgetown fan in his younger years. Hart went to Hoya games in Hoya jerseys. He idolized guys like DaJuan Summers and Jason Clark and Austin Freeman. When he got to high school, when it became clear that he was going to be a player that could play in the Big East, the assumption was that he would end up at Georgetown.

Only, the offer never came.

“They were heavy on me for a little bit,” Hart said, “but then they just randomly backed off.”

Perhaps the better way to phrase it is that the Georgetown coaching staff never accepted his commitment. Hart says that he was, in fact, offered a scholarship by the Georgetown staff, but the fact of the matter is that if that offer held any substance, Hart would be playing his college ball on the Hilltop instead of the Main Line. A top 75 player in the Class of 2013, Hart’s perimeter stroke was severely lacking during his high school days, and wings that can’t shoot don’t work well in Georgetown’s system.

So the Hoyas took Stephen Domingo and Reggie Cameron over him.

That stung.

And while Hart is too media savvy to admit it to a reporter — when asked, he said, “it adds fuel to the fire,” but that his competitive juices are always flowing during road games in league play — he’s not the most convincing salesman. It still bothers him. When the team you grow up rooting for says you’re not good enough to play for them, nothing feels better than going into their gym and proving them wrong.

And on Saturday, Hart did just that. He had 15 points, 12 boards, two steals and two assists as No. 6 Villanova went into the Verizon Center and knocked off the Hoyas, 55-50.

“It felt amazing,” Hart told NBCSports.com in the bowels of the arena while sporting a grin akin to what a ten-year old Josh looked like on Christmas morning. “Coming home, that’s an emotional game for me. All my family and friends, they came to see me. It felt great coming in and gutting one out.”

Gutting one out.

That’s the perfect way to phrase how Saturday’s game was played. Georgetown shot 32.7 percent from the floor, a number that was much lower before a late flurry spurred on by sophomore guard L.J. Peak and a pair of threes from Cameron trimmed a lead that stood at 38-27 with nine minutes left to just three points. Villanova hung on to win despite scoring just a single field goal in the final nine minutes of the game, which is precisely the kind of game that Hart thrives in.

There’s nothing pretty about the way that Hart plays. A 6-foot-5 wing, Hart’s best work is done on the glass. He’s a junkyard dog in every sense of the word. Talk to coaches around the league about him, and most of them will tell you the same thing: He’s a tough kid that is miserable to play against but is the kind of ‘winning player’ that everyone of them would love to coach. He’s the guy that frustrates opponents while toeing the line between fierce competitor and dirty player.

For example, in Villanova’s 31-point blowout win over Xavier on New Year’s Eve, Hart got tangled up with Xavier center James Farr while battling for a rebound. Hart grabbed Farr’s arm, pulling them both down to the floor. Farr was mad, his reaction to sit up and scream something at Hart, who was already calmly jogging to his bench.

He knew exactly what he was doing.

It makes you wonder if that’s the reason why Hart isn’t getting the respect he deserves nationally. The top 25 finalists for the Wooden Award were released this week, and nowhere on that list did the name of the leading scorer, second-leading rebounder and best perimeter defender for the No. 1 in KenPom’s rankings appear.

That’s crazy, isn’t it?

Part of the reason is probably that much of Hart’s value doesn’t appear in a box score. The perfect example came with the game on the line in the final 30 seconds on Saturday. Georgetown was down 51-46, and after Cameron missed what would have been his third straight three, Hart laid out for the loose ball, diving on the floor and calling timeout, a play that all-but clinch the win.

“That’s something that you can’t teach,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “You teach rebounding technique. You can’t teach the guts to lay your body out to go get the ball.”

It’s plays like that from Hart that have the Wildcats sitting at 16-2 overall and 6-0 in the Big East, now a full two games in front of a Georgetown tea, that lost to Radford, UNC Asheville and Monmouth already this season.

“That desire [to win],” Wright said, “you see that and you say, ‘Thank god he’s on our team.'”