When Ryan Arcidiacono ran the length of the floor in the final seconds of the national title game and pitched the ball back to Kris Jenkins for one of the most iconic shots in college basketball history, Josh Hart saw the top of the mountain. Villanova had capped a near-flawless run through the NCAA Tournament, and in the process started the clock on the hardest decision of Hart's life.
Hart occupied a unique distinction as the best NBA prospect on a national championship winner that didn't have any NBA prospects. He had another year of eligibility left at Villanova, but it stood to reason his name would never be more relevant than it was right now.
Six weeks later, Hart is still wrestling with the decision. It's a luxury no one else who came before him has ever been given.
"It's 50/50 right now," Hart said with measured perspective at the NBA Draft Combine last week in Chicago. "I'm torn, honestly. My dream is to play in the NBA and I definitely want to pursue that. But I love Villanova. I love the program, I love the people that we have and the support we get there. I'm torn between two good situations. It's a tough one."
Hart is one of the biggest beneficiaries of a rare NCAA rule change that's actually favorable for student athletes. A year ago, Hart never would have been able to sit at the draft combine while still pondering the decision. Underclassmen had to decide if they were in or out by May 8, and there was no going back once the choice was made.
This year, NCAA decided to push back that deadline to May 25, or 10 days after the combine. Now Hart and others like him can go through the process, get feedback from NBA teams and make a more informed decision on their future.
Hart plans to use every last second the NCAA is granting him before making up his mind. His final workout will be with the Atlanta Hawks the day before the deadline. After that, he'll meet with his parents, Villanova coach Jay Wright and make the best decision for himself and his family.
"It's tough for teams to guarantee that they'll take you you in the first round just being a month before the draft," Hart said. "Teams don't really know what they're doing a month before the draft. They might want to see you a little bit more. They might not totally know what they're doing in free agency. There's so many different variables."
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Hours after Jenkins' shot splashed through the net, ESPN released a ranking of the top 25 players for next season. No. 2 was Isaiah Whitehead, who just wrapped up a breakout sophomore season for Seton Hall. And with it, there was an immediate projection that the Coney Island point guard would return to school.
Whitehead was always destined for college basketball stardom. He was the No. 14 player in ESPN's class of 2014 rankings, a McDonald's All-American and considered the biggest recruit for Seton Hall in decades. His freshman season was mostly a wash as the Pirates were engulfed in turmoil, but his sophomore year was the realization of every expectation he entered college with.
Whitehead averaged 18.2 points and 5.1 assists per game while proving to be a capable and confident three-point shooter. He was incredible in Seton Hall's run to the Big East Tournament championship, scoring 20 or more points in every contest, including 26 against Villanova in the title game.
At 6'4 with long arms and a strong build, Whitehead has the look of an NBA point guard. There's only one problem: scouts still want to see more out of a player who turned the ball over too much and only shot 39 percent on two-pointers. Whitehead is currently ranked No. 58 in this class by DraftExpress and No. 53 by ESPN's Chad Ford, but it only takes one team to make his NBA dreams a reality. That's why the new rule is a life-saver.
"I couldn't even imagine being in the draft last year where you had to submit your name and then you're done," Whitehead said at the combine. "The deadline to where you had to submit your name was so early. Everything happened after that. Then once you were in it, you were stuck."
Whitehead is well aware of the benefits that can be had by staying in school. He watched Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine improve their stocks dramatically by returning to college. He said he's recently started talking to Kris Dunn about why he made the decision to come back to Providence last year as a projected first-rounder.
With that said, there's a reason Whitehead is going through the process.
"If the NBA is calling, you gotta go," he said.
In the days after the combine, there have been contradicting reports about Whitehead's future. One day, it was reported he's staying in the draft. The next, he's coming back to school. Whitehead had to clarify himself that he's going up to the deadline to make his decision.
Whether he returns to Seton Hall or enters the draft, there's no question the NCAA's new rules have been beneficial to Whitehead, Hart and others like them.
"If you decide to go back to school, you still have that information of where you're good and what you need to work on," Whitehead said. "Then just get ready for next year's draft."
The next few days will be tense ones for players deciding to turn pro or stay in school. That they have them at all is a gift worth appreciating.