CHICAGO — Villanova’s unlikely run to the 2016 national title captured America’s attention and solidified Jay Wright’s program as a national power. Nobody expected the Wildcats to be champions. In one prominent bracket challenge last March, more people picked Villanova to lose in the first round to a No. 15 seed than win the national championship.
Kris Jenkins’ legendary buzzer-beater helped change the public perception of Villanova. People respect them now, which makes sense considering that Villanova is potentially in position to be the team with the best chance to repeat as national champions since Florida took home back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007.
“Potentially” being the key word.
Because they just have to wait on the NBA decision of junior Josh Hart.
If the 6-foot-6, do-it-all guard decides to return to Philadelphia for his senior season, then Villanova returns approximately 70 percent of its scoring and rebounding from last season’s title team. Since Florida went back-to-back, no defending champion in the “one-and-done” era outside of Louisville in 2013 comes even close to those returning totals. Of the eight defending champions since Florida, none have made it past the Sweet 16. Three defending champions missed the tournament completely — North Carolina in 2010, Kentucky in 2013 and UConn in 2015, to say nothing of the fact that Florida went to the NIT in back-to-back years after their back-to-back titles.
And all but two of those eight defending champions were ranked in the preseason top five.
Villanova will likely find itself in the top five of preseason polls for the 2016-17 season, but it will be based on a roster that has already succeeded at the college level. It won’t be half respect and half recruiting hype; Villanova is returning a ton of players who just won on the sport’s biggest stage.
Most defending champions since Florida had to completely re-tool rosters that were filled with future NBA lottery picks and one-and-done freshmen, but Villanova only has to deal with the loss of seniors Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu if Hart decides to come back.
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Hart knows all of the factors involved in his decision, and he’s weighing them all accordingly. But how do you decide between chasing your dreams and chasing history?
“I’d probably say [I’m] 50-50. My dream is to play in the NBA and I definitely want to pursue that but I love Villanova,” Hart said at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. “I love the program. I love the people that we have. I love the school and the support that we have there. Torn between two good situations. Obviously, you want to have this choice, a choice of having two good situations. But it’s a tough one.”
While Nova Nation sits and waits on Hart’s next move, ironically, he’s one of the only students currently left on Villanova’s campus. Like many NBA Draft hopefuls who didn’t hire an agent to go through this process, Hart is staying at school to work out for the draft as he will likely decide his future on the final day, May 25th.
And on that final day, Hart will go over his options with a support system that includes his parents, Jay Wright and Villanova assistant Baker Dunleavy. Until then, most of the other students on Villanova’s campus — including Hart’s teammates — have left for break, so Hart is left to working out on his own and playing XBox in his dorm room. When he’s not getting up shots or working out for a NBA team, Hart is a self-described “homebody”, a national champion who would be recognized all over Philly that opts to keep his competitive juices flowing during the offseason via XBox — Call of Duty: Black Ops III or NBA 2K16 are his go-to games.
“My walls are taking a beating between me hitting it and me throwing my controller around,” Hart said.
Between working out and games of 2K, Hart hears the lobbying from Villanova fans and deciding what the future may hold. Losing Arcidiacono and Ochefu will undoubtedly hurt the Wildcats next season. But Jalen Brunson, a former McDonald’s All-American point guard, will help mitigate the loss of Arch while the Wildcats also add forward Eric Paschall, a transfer from Fordham, and bring in a talented recruiting class that includes five-star big man Omari Spellman. Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth should all be expected to improve from last season, when they were counted on as role players for the most part.
“I think they could be stars at different programs,” Hart said. “The way we play, we don’t look like we have a star.”
And if Hart decides to return to Villanova, the Wildcats will again be a matchup nightmare, as Jenkins is also returning to school after flirting with the NBA Draft.
“We were very young last year. We’re only losing two guys. Granted, they were huge leaders on our team. But it’s the guys that are there. The guys that are coming in are very talented and dedicated to playing Villanova basketball and being all-in to that system,” Hart said. “Obviously if I come back that goal is to repeat, but with or without me, they’re going to make a deep run.”
If he decides to close out his college basketball career with one final season, Hart knows that making a repeat run will be tough. If you bring up that Florida team to Hart, he’s also quick to downplay any sort of comparison. In talking to media at the NBA combine, Hart said he models his game after players like Tony Allen, Danny Green and Courtney Lee — role players who were all picked at least No. 22 or later in the NBA Draft.
Without missing a beat, Hart could name three members of the Florida national championship teams.
“[We’re] not really like them,” Hart said. “I think they had three lottery guys come back with Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Joakim Noah. They had three guys that could go in the top 14 come back. So it’s a little bit different situation. But that would be the goal if I were to come back. The goal would be to repeat so I would look after that team.”
Villanova will have different roster makeup than Florida did for those championship seasons, but they’re also in the best position of any team since that Gator group to make a deep NCAA tournament run after winning a championship.
The Wildcats won’t have a roster littered with future lottery picks and they’ll probably get passed over for younger teams with more future NBA talent when people pick a preseason national champion. But if Hart returns, it would be wise to keep the Wildcats in mind for the 2017 national championship. With Hart back, Villanova isn’t even close to a sure thing, but it’ll be intriguing to see how they bounce back after the national title.
“At the end of the day, there’s no guarantees in anything. There’s no guarantee that I go back next year and we have a great year,” Hart said. “I could go back next year, have a good year and be in the same position that I am now. That’s something I have to think about. There’s no guarantees in this process.”