An electronic-image search of Mike Hart provides a collage of his prime contributions to the No. 1-ranked Gonzaga men’s basketball team.
In some, he’s in a horizontal dive for a ball, or taking a fist to the chops, or in a heated scrum with several opponents.
He always wears a familiar snarling expression. Where was it we’ve seen that look? Oh, yeah, on GU’s bulldog mascot.
In one photo, from the Butler game, one guy has his throat while another tries to knock him over. But Hart has the ball in a death grip. This, after all, is a man who has had just eight turnovers in 31 games, so he’s not giving anything away without a fight.
The crowd, particularly the frantic GU student section, often can be seen in many of these images that display Hart’s tenacity.
It’s important background to his story because five years ago, when Hart arrived at GU, he was in the student section, a lanky former prep player who showed up to study business.
Now, he’s a starter and one of the most valuable individuals on the nation’s best team.
“It’s been an unbelievable journey,” Hart said prior to his final game at the Kennel, Saturday’s senior-day win over Portland. “I’ve started at the low and been at the top now. It’s been five years I’ll never forget, and I’ll remember every one of my experiences I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
The 6-foot-6 Hart was a second-team all-leaguer at Jesuit High in Portland, so it’s not surprising that he was not high on the list of college prospects, particularly for a program like GU, which finds talent across the globe.
In a bit of good fortune, the freshman business student was assigned to the same residence hall as incoming Zags hooper Andy Poling. Through that connection, Hart got into some gym-rat games with other players, and worked his way into an open tryout.
The reason he was noticed from the start, and ultimately worked his way into the starting lineup, he explained, was his attitude.
It wasn’t just a function of hustle, but also of his belief that he belonged.
“I always thought I had it in me,” he said at the start of this season. “I always thought if the coaches got the opportunity to see what I could bring, I could prove myself, and that I’d be worthy.”
His effort is conspicuous during the game but subtle in the statistics. He averages 16 minutes of playing time and has taken only 33 shots (making 20) all season, and attempted 20 3-pointers (hitting 11).
Despite the limited time on the floor, he’s third on the team in rebounds (3.5 a game) and steals (26).
Coach Mark Few has overseen a rich GU legacy in under-recruited guys who made names out of their willingness to do dirty work: Mark Spink, David Pendergraft, Mike Nilson and others.
But Hart has been a worthy heir, and he’ll be tough to replace.
“You think about all the sacrifices, and just the overall effort and heart and soul Mike Hart plays with,” Few said. “He’s given everything to this program.”
At times, his scrambles for loose balls or his defensive effort have evoked crowd reaction equal to others’ dramatic dunks or timely 3-point baskets.
“It’s special,” Hart said. “I appreciate the support, and the fans understand what I bring. It’s great to be acknowledged for that. It’s been special and I love every second of it.”
The Zags, 29-2 overall, wrapped up a 16-0 West Coast Conference season Saturday, and won’t get their No. 1 ranking tested on the floor until the semifinals of the conference tournament on Saturday in Las Vegas.
“A lot of things have changed since the first day I stepped on campus and the first day I stepped into this gym until now,” Hart said. “It’s been a step-by-step building process to get where I am now. It’s been an unforgettable journey.”dave.boling@ thenewstribune.com 253-597-8440 @DaveBoling