A month into the college basketball season, Josh Hart has established himself as the sport's best player, the leading pony in the race for national Player of the Year.
At this point -- today -- Hart has no true equal let alone a superior. College basketball doesn't have a player to challenge him because Hart's adventurous Saturday afternoon performance provided cushion in the form of a big-time win on a national stage against an undefeated team coming off an Elite Eight appearance.
Hart and top-ranked Villanova got a big push in a very fun game on CBS against No. 23. Notre Dame, which fell to 9-1 in a 74-66 outcome. The Irish -- who came out firing and looked damn good in the first half -- appeared poised to give Villanova its first loss in 16 games, but Hart's 18 first-half points kept VU within striking distance.
As Villanova tugged and tussled and eventually took the lead late in the second half, Hart continued to muscle his way to an epic performance, the best he's had in a college uniform. He finished with a career-high 37 points, plus 11 boards, four assists and two steals. He was 10-of-14 from the field, made all 14 of his free throws and became the first player, per ESPN Stats & Information, to score at least 35 points on better than 70-percent shooting and grab at least 10 rebounds vs. a ranked team since Antawn Jamison did that for UNC back in 1998.
Ridiculous performance, and in typical Hart style, it wasn't flashy. From about the 10-minute mark forward in the first half, it felt like Hart was going to have a huge day no matter how the game ended for Nova.
For instance, this play. I love this seemingly ordinary bucket from Hart, but check the time and score, and look how Hart plays into contact to earn the and-one. This was a huge play for Villanova's psyche as the first half drew to a close.
Villanova will remain the No. 1 team in America when Monday's national polls update, and they're probably going to enter 2017 as the No. 1 team as well, because VU doesn't face a threat to knock it from the top of the mountain until the Creighton road game on New Year's Eve.
Here's the perfect balance for Villanova and its star: Hart isn't everything for the Wildcats. Never has been, never will be. That's precisely why Saturday's turn of events conveniently captured a lot of what makes Hart so good -- so valuable -- but Villanova so elite, too. The Wildcats had some flaws exposed (no urgency on D in the first 20 minutes), and so at times Hart carried his guys. The halftime score was a 41-36 Notre Dame edge, and if Hart wasn't in the game, the Irish would've been up by 15 -- minimum.
By game's end, Hart played 37 mandatory minutes and wound up with half his team's points. But you saw Jalen Brunson (underrated) and Mikal Bridges (very underrated) have critical plays to keep Villanova going up to, then past, Notre Dame. Nova has the guys. When Phil Booth returns, it will have one of the best seven-man rotations in the country.
And, naturally, Villanova is the best team in the Big East again. No shock; it's what was projected entering the season, and now we're seeing why that's going to be the case for the fourth straight year. By nature of this, VU should remain in the top 10 of the polls for most of if not the entire season. That kind of relevance combined with a gaudy win total and a prominent win streak will only help Hart's player-of-the-year case.
He plays on the East Coast for the Big East's flagship program, and Villanova's going to be in the thick of it for another No. 1 seed. Then there's this: He leads the team in scoring (17.6), rebounds (6.7), assists (3.8) and 3-point percentage (46.7). He's shooting 64 percent from 2-point range. He also had a triple-double last weekend, the first at Villanova in three decades. No other player in the running right now (Duke's Luke Kennard, UCLA's Lonzo Ball, Kansas' Frank Mason III, Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox) can match those team-leading stats.
The Wildcats have won 16 in a row, dating back to last season -- tied for the longest in program history. That streak would have ended a few games ago without Hart.
Saturday was big for the continued national profile of the reigning national champions, but it was even bigger for Hart, who is undoubtedly, finally, convincing many more NBA scouts that he's got the goods to play at the next level -- because he's dominating his current level with more consistency and leadership than any other player in America.