How a Player of the Year favorite prepares: A weekend on the road with Josh Hart

Thursday February 16th, 2017

ROSEMONT, Ill. — It’s late on Feb. 13, and one of the country’s most important basketball players stands in front of a rickety freight elevator inside DePaul’s Allstate Arena, discussing a very significant change to his game: Josh Hart did not screw up Valentine’s Day this year. He secured a 7:15 p.m. table for two at the Capital Grille in Philadelphia a week ahead of time, as opposed to the previous winter, when Villanova’s do-it-all wing didn’t do much of anything for his longtime girlfriend, Shannon Phillips. He waited until the day of to look for a spot and then required help from his mother, who somehow unearthed an opening at a Brazilian steakhouse.

No emergency assist is necessary this week. As he rolls toward another title run on the floor, Hart has likewise mastered courtly preparations. “I wanted to go to Chima, but the special was like $90 per person,” Hart says, alluding to a different Brazilian joint in Philly, not long after his team drubs the lowly Blue Demons for a 25th win. “I said, you know what, I love you, but that’s a little steep. We’ll go to Capital Grille. It’s like $70. That’s doable. I gotta have my lobster bisque, my favorite soup, get a steak and call it a day.”

It is hardly the only moment of his senior season that goes to plan. For four days in February, SI.com was a Hart monitor, watching how a national player of the year candidate readies himself for the burden of driving the defending NCAA champions. And the attention Villanova’s lodestar performer receives from opponents dead-set on stopping him, the expectations for outsize numbers every night, the example he must set in the locker room . . . Josh Hart generally handles this load just as he handled romantic dinner prep for his girlfriend one year ago: Without reservation.

“When you’re a senior in this program,” Villanova coach Jay Wright says, “you know it’s all on you.”

Brian Hamilton

Friday

At 9:53 a.m., Villanova pulls into the loading dock at Xavier’s Cintas Center. (Fittingly, they’re using the Champion coach service.) Despite a snowstorm that blew through campus the previous morning, the Wildcats are here as planned, in every sense: The second-ranked team in the country, prohibitive Big East favorites and winners in 23 of 25 games entering the weekend. One of the last people to emerge from the bus is Hart, who smiles conspiratorially as sophomore forward Mikal Bridges leans in and whispers something in Hart’s ear.

Hart is Villanova’s leading scorer and rebounder (18.7 and 6.6 per game, respectively), Division I’s most valuable player by at least one measure (he finishes the weekend leading the country with 6.1 Win Shares) and a man of good spirits and few words. As he peels off warmups on a courtside chair, Hart bobs his head to J. Cole pumping through his ear buds, at one point flinging a ball toward the rim while still seated. (It misses.)

His voice will not dominate the airspace for the next two hours. None of the Wildcats are exceptionally loud, but there’s no mistaking it when fellow senior Kris Jenkins calls out screens, or when sophomore guard Jalen Brunson hollers for more energy during a five-on-five drill. Most messages from Hart are delivered via body language or the occasional murmur. He winces as he hoists a pre-practice jumper and twists his torso to stretch a bothersome back—”I’m gonna need a massage after this,” he mumbles to director of operations George Halcovage—and he later delivers short and affirmative responses to coaching directives. When Wright notes that Hart should attack the rim from a certain spot, Hart nods and replies only, “Yeah.”

If Hart isn’t expressive—”I’m more like a lead-by-example guy,” he concedes—neither is he passive. During the workout, Hart regularly engages Wright or assistant coach Baker Dunleavy in brief asides on sets or coverages. Teammates view it as a kind of altruism—”When he asks a question and gets an answer,” Jenkins says, “that answer is for everyone”—but it’s also self-interest. In his first two seasons, Hart was hardly the center of the opposition’s attention, averaging 23.5 minutes and 9.0 points. As such he was a bit liberated from fussing over where to be at all times. “He was very loose,” Wright says. “He might not know the scouting report but he’d make up for it in effort and athleticism.”

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Being an auxiliary part arguably helped Hart win Big East tournament MVP honors as a sophomore. Now he’s a hard target. “You have to start being cerebral about how you attack,” Wright says. As such, Hart can’t afford to neglect nuances; it’s through the nuances that he’ll free himself to produce. “Now that I’m the guy at the top of the scouting report, the guy every team wants to stop, I have to make sure that I make the right play,” he says. “It’s not just about scoring. It’s about making sure my teammates are getting the ball. Trying to minimize the tough shots that I take. It’s about who is dialed into the details.”

In the meantime, Villanova must ensure Hart is able to be dialed in. At the end of the practice, Wright calls everyone to midcourt. He puts 10 minutes on the clock for a team-wide shooting contest. Then he looks at Hart. “You sit,” Wright says.

Consider it an energy conservation plan. Ten minutes here and there add up over a season. So while everyone else hoists jumpers and talks trash, Hart can only interject from a courtside seat (“Dang, can someone make a shot?”) and beg for the ball so he can shoot at least once. (He is ignored.) As the game nears its end, Hart is already dressed for the return trip to the hotel. “Y’all lucky the shot-maker ain’t out here!” he shouts. He scrolls through his phone and selects his “throwback” playlist of circa-1990s and 2000s R&B and heads to the bus just before noon. The game is more than 24 hours away. Hart has much more idle time ahead. But he knows the shot-maker will get his turn.

Andy Lyons/Getty

Saturday

Minutes before Villanova returns to the Cintas Center to face Xavier, the NCAA tournament selection committee decrees the Wildcats to be the No. 1 overall seed during its first-ever bracket preview show. Wright doesn’t discuss the results with his team. And if the news found its way to Hart, it didn’t alter a gameday regimen predicated on staying balanced. “There are times where I feel like I might be too intense, and that clouds certain things,” Josh Hart says. “I try to be focused and all that. But not overly intense to the point where it can hurt me.”

For every moment of concentration, there’s a moment of quiet as counterweight. Before he leaves the hotel, Hart calls his parents and prays. He’s not the first player on the floor at the arena—he’s never first in line to get his ankles taped—but he jogs out of the tunnel 68 minutes before tipoff, high-fives a fan with a Villanova flag, blows on both hands and goes to work. He begins with one-hand form shooting on the block. (After air-balling one attempt from three feet, Hart sheepishly looks around, to see if anyone caught the misfire.) Then it’s short baseline jumpers, then extended-elbow 15-footers from both sides. At this point, Dunleavy steps in and points to the elbow itself. Five minutes after Hart takes the floor, the rhythm truly takes hold, with Dunleavy feeding him pass after pass for shot after shot.

The session isn’t going great and Dunleavy urges Hart to concentrate on his follow through. Another miss. “Come on! Finish!” Dunleavy says. “Let’s go!” Hart hits stride soon enough. He drains a pair of three-pointers from one spot, then another, then another, eventually making his way to the corner where he drains two more. Dunleavy flashes Hart a thumbs-up. Their work is done. Hart dribbles off to the side, looks around the arena, then takes his shoes off and flexes his ankles. He takes a few minutes to collect himself before he re-engages for more warmups with the guards, after which he briskly jogs to the locker room. There he prays again, for protection for both teams, and for guidance and wisdom. “You’re not always going to be perfect,” he says, “but I gotta make sure I know how to handle things.”

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There’s plenty to handle. Shortly after arrival at the team hotel Thursday, Wright found Hart and Jenkins and informed them that senior center Darryl Reynolds, the team’s second-leading rebounder and a rugged post defender, was out with a rib injury. The coach implored Hart and Jenkins: Make everyone see this a challenge they want to take on. Hart reiterates the point in the locker room before tipoff: Do what we do. Grow up and be men about it. It’s an opportunity.

With effectively a six-man rotation against Xavier, those opportunities are limited to a select group. Still, Brunson assumes a lead-dog role, scoring 17 points. Donte DiVincenzo, the 6' 5" redshirt freshman guard, comes off the bench to add 17 of his own. As for Hart? Not eight minutes in, he has two assists and three steals. He registers just two points before halftime but Villanova builds a 12-point lead, which underscores the effectiveness of his choices. Hart finishes with just 11 points, tying a season-low. But he adds seven rebounds (“We needed every single one of those,” Dunleavy says), five assists, four steals and commits one turnover in 36 minutes. He guards every position, even Xavier’s centers. Naturally, when Villanova needs a score, it does not hesitate to turn to on its star; with a little more than two minutes left, Wright hollers the play call. Flop Josh. There’s not much to it, just Brunson dribbling to his right and then passing back to Hart, who is set up to charge downhill toward the iron. His layup makes it a 14-point game and essentially clinches what becomes a 73–57 win.

But beyond buckets, Hart’s value is evident for anyone who cares to look. “Everyone thinks you’re a player of the year candidate, you gotta go out there and score 20 or 25,” Hart says afterward. “I’m sorry to break it to some people—it’s not the award for who scores the most. It’s about going out there and being a Villanova basketball player and getting everyone involved. I said it after the Notre Dame game when I had 37 [points]—if I go out there and just try to score, and that’s all I’m trying to do, I’m going to hurt the team.”

After he’s done talking, he takes photos and makes small talk with family and acquaintances that attended the game. He then picks up his backpack and hugs everyone. “Thanks for coming!” Hart says before he walks away, with a Monday game at DePaul already looming. If Dunleavy wants to watch film after a dinner of stir-fry and sushi on the other end of the flight to Chicago, Hart will study. Otherwise, he plans to relax. After a day of almost non-stop toil, he could use a few more quiet moments.

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Sunday

Inside the Advocate Center, the Chicago Bulls’ gleaming two-year-old practice facility on the city’s near west side, Villanova staffers wander around taking pictures of title banners and taking notes about the building’s amenities. Josh Hart, meanwhile, ties his shoes on a courtside bench and then fires casual warmup jumpers while standing on a Bulls logo. For 90 minutes or so, the Wildcats get the run of a state-of-the-art NBA gym.

Wright calls a huddle at 3:44 p.m. Eighteen minutes later, after stretching and precisely zero drills, the Wildcats coach directs six players, Hart included, to the showers and cold tubs. It is what Villanova calls a Flush Day. In February, especially for a senior with a heavy workload like Hart, sometimes the best preparation for basketball involves virtually no basketball at all. “You can only get so refreshed this late into the season,” Hart says. “But it’s good to get a day where you’re not doing too much with your body.”

John Shackleton, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, might argue Hart and others still do plenty. “We’re firm believers in, your body heals through movement,” Shackleton says. “You can’t just say we’re going to do a recovery day and sit on your butt. It actually can be a negative.” He explains it to the team when Wright cedes the huddle to him: The stretching is their active recovery, heating up the body, charging up the nervous system, opening up vessels through which their hearts pump oxygenated blood. The hot shower/cold tub combo is passive recovery, encouraging those vessels to dilate and constrict and keep pumping that reinvigorating plasma. (The cold tub helps with inflammation as a bonus.)

Hart gives a rousing thumbs-up to the cold tubs in particular—”Dope,” he says, covering head trainer Jeff Pierce’s ears as he declares the Bulls’ setup superior to Villanova’s—but his body is evidently built for bounce-back anyway. Wright deems Hart a “thoroughbred” for logging 33.2 minutes per game without considerable residual effect. “He’s a freak,” Shackleton says. “His ability to recover is insane.” Of course, part of that is Hart learning to take (mostly) exquisite care of his body so it doesn’t let him down.

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In his early years at Villanova, Mike & Ike’s were as much a part of Hart’s pregame ritual as elbow jumpers. This was an improvement: Hart says he practiced with a pack of Skittles in his socks during high school. Though he has been caught sneaking candy out of his jacket and indulging his sweet tooth before some games, Hart generally has fallen in line with Villanova’s nutrition ideals. Shackleton works with Villanova’s travel coordinator to source all-natural meals on the road; the lunch spread after Friday’s practice features three kinds of salad (arugula, kale and romaine), organic free-range grilled chicken, multigrain bread, cashew butter and three flavors of fruit spread free of gluten and cane sugar. (Even the menu for a Sunday team dinner at Joe’s, a renowned steakhouse in downtown Chicago, is winnowed to restaurant’s healthiest options.) So when Hart eschews the lunch greens for two sandwiches—he’s a ranch or Caesar dressing guy and all they had was balsamic—they are nevertheless the healthiest PB&Js an athlete can find. “He’s more conscious of it,” Shackleton says. “He wanted Skippy when he first got here. I was like, no, we don’t put Skippy out. It’s not even peanut butter.”

The result is a star with 5% body fat and the program’s unfailing trust. When Hart gets a day off—like this Flush Day, or the preceding Thursday, when he was limited due to back spasms—no one flinches. He has established he will be adequately equipped when the time comes.

Since Wright’s early days on the job, Villanova charts Attitude Points during games: Players receive credits for actions like grabbing loose balls, deflecting passes, contesting shots or setting screens that lead to a basket. Going into the DePaul game, Hart’s Attitude point total for the season ranks in the top 3 in 10 of 12 categories. “They know, every day, he beats everybody’s butt,” Wright says.

If Hart’s Sunday amounts to a few 15-footers and a dip in the cold tub, so be it. Everyone knows what to expect Monday, from Hart and themselves. “It’s what our program is about,” Jenkins says. “When you have a senior who’s an All-American candidate and player of the year candidate that’s willing to do the dirty work, then nobody else can complain and everybody else follows suit.”

Mitchell Leff/Getty

Monday

As Hart reviews some of his game-saving plays from Villanova’s first meeting with DePaul—he scored 10 of his 25 points in the last three minutes of a 68–65 escape on Dec. 28—he is almost amused. Ridiculous, Hart says. And he’s not referring to the heroism of his efforts. “You stop [the video] when I’m in the paint, and literally everyone is looking at me, and everyone is in the paint,” Hart says. “You see that, you know how they’re playing you.”

These considerations fill the many hours before an 8 p.m. local time tip in suburban Chicago, from breakfast to the morning shootaround to film sessions after lunch and before Villanova’s team dinner. At this stage of Josh Hart’s career, adjustment is the key, and film study reveals what adjustments need to be made. After Virginia frustrated Hart on Jan. 29 by walling him up and banging him with big bodies, stifling his drives and forcing a 2-for-9 shooting effort in Villanova’s 61–59 win, the coaching staff rolled the clips and told Hart other teams would mimic the plan. They suggested their leading scorer return to his pull-up game. The result: Hart averaged 22.7 points in his next three outings.

Likewise, Hart anticipated Xavier would keep multiple sets of eyes on him; on his very first touch, a help defender jumped over after one dribble. “Every team is going to come in saying, If we take Josh Hart out of the game the best we can, that gives us the best chance,” Dunleavy says. So Hart shifted into a playmaking-before-scoring mindset. Film prep for DePaul reinforces the idea. Before Hart goes to bed Saturday, Dunleavy shows him a handful of snippets of good reads from the Xavier game, to get Hart’s mind churning before sleep. On Sunday, a brief pre-practice review of the first DePaul game clues Hart in regarding how much attention he’ll likely get. And that tells Hart how to handle it: Involve others until DePaul loosens up. “I know these next several games—of course I’m going to stay aggressive—but these have to be big assist games for me,” Hart says.

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A referee’s whistle can upend even the best-laid plans. Two first-half fouls derail Hart’s ability to find an early groove against the Blue Demons. He winds up logging 29 minutes, his third-fewest of the season. It’s not a problem for Villanova, which leads by as many as 27 and never trails on its way to a win. But outside the locker room, the subject of the fouls comes up and Hart rolls his eyes and sighs. He scores 16 points, but seven of those arrived in the final four minutes. He compiles a modest four rebounds and just one assist. “Its frustrating, because you’re going in trying to do one thing, and then foul trouble doesn’t allow you to be as aggressive, and you have to change your whole mindset,” Hart says afterward. “But it’s a part of the game.”

Because his team swept this Midwest swing without the services of the injured Reynolds, Hart deems the trip a success. But the rough edges seem to annoy him. He says he wouldn’t mind playing sooner than Saturday, when the Wildcats face Seton Hall. “I want to get back out there,” he says. He has no real choice in that, of course. So Hart walks out of the locker room at 10:40 p.m., munching on a soft pretzel and moseying toward a bus where he finds a special treat: Pizza from Giordano’s and Lou Malnati’s, two of Chicago’s finest purveyors of deep dish.

The shot-maker can indulge and then sleep in. The next day, he has a 1 p.m. class and one subsequent meeting with a professor. Then it’s quality Xbox time until his girlfriend arrives. “After that, I’m all hers,” Josh Hart says. He admits he’s not perfect. But he’s now thoroughly prepared to handle the important stuff.

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