Last night, in one of the ugliest wins in recent memory, the Cats labored painfully to get by one of the weaker teams in the BEAST (as much as I hate when Lane uses this term, it feels all too appropriate this year). Without the absolutely heroic performance of a freshman that, at the beginning of the season, was not even expected to be in a uniform year, the team would no doubt have tacked on yet another late season, questionable loss and instilled even more panic into the minds of an already restless fan base.
But the point of this post is not to rip the team for its lack of assertiveness (senior Corey Fisher taking only 4 shots in a game with Stokes out), extreme carelessness with the ball (22 turnovers, 6 each by our "star" point guards) or the continued struggles of players we have been waiting for the contribute consistently all year (Houdini act from Mouphtaou Yarou in the 2nd half, another forgettable night from a supposedly healthy Dominic Cheek). It is to praise a truly phenomenal and, not to be overly dramatic, a possibly season saving performance in Newark by a true freshman.
And after hearing this quote, how can you not LOVE the guy.
Bell said he always wanted to play for Wright because of the type of players Villanova produces, saying Dwayne Anderson and Dante Cunningham embodied "the man I wanted to be."
More after The Jump.
James Bell would never have ended up at Villanova five years ago. A testament to the continued success of the program and the phenomenal recruiting job by Jay Wright and his staff, Bell, a 4 star Rivals recruit and the top wing player in the state of Florida, was poached from the heart of SEC country. Bell led his high school onto the national stage and was a YouTube sensation for his dunks even before his senior season. His recruitment marked a big step for Villanova in that they were able to reel in a big time national recruit from outside of the usual NYC/DC hotbeds. Something tells me Billy Donovan watched last night and wished he'd tried a little harder to keep him in-state.
Over the summer, Bell developed stress fractures in both of his legs and legitimately did not play basketball for six months until this past December. The general consensus going into the year was that he would redshirt but, due to JayVaughn Pinkston's hastily forced departure in the fall, the team was shorthanded and needed the extra body. Until last week's Rutgers game/debacle/nightmare/near-JOAB when he hit a couple of key baskets to keep the Cats in it, Bell's biggest contribution had been a 3 point basket late in the first half of the Louisville game. The big Syracuse win at the Dome and the Wells Fargo games against Georgetown and West Virginia? Bell was a coach's DNP, not even seeing a minute of time.
He had 31 total points on the season entering last night and I'm guessing he was barely part of the Seton Hall scouting report. His 21 points, which came on an efficient 7 for 9 from the field, included a golden days Stokes-like four 3's and a huge bucket towards the end that ended a 3+ minute scoring drought for the team. The offense almost overshadowed the fact that he got the majority of the burn on the defensive end against Jeremy Hazell and helped force him into needing 23 shots to get his 25 points.
While it is too early to call this a breakout, it is clear Bell is more than just a high-flyer. I now know why last week when I was on campus that this kid's jersey is sold in the bookstore. He can shoot it out to the 3 point line, can play really solid man defense and appears to be a guy who "gets" Villanova basketball early in his career. Make no doubt about it, this team needs a healthy Corey Stokes and much better play out of the other starters to make a run in the tournament. But expect to hear more from Bell down the line and don't forget the night this kid had in mid-February; it may very well prove to be a turning point in the Cats' season and his career.