Each year preceding his senior campaign, James Bell was forced to deal with some varied form of speed bump along the road. His freshman debut was marred by stress fractures in the tibia of both his legs; Bell received more than 10 minutes of action in only 8 games. His sophomore season developed on schedule until a gruesome ankle sprain stymied any momentum he had gained during conference play. Last year was certainly James' best to date, but inconsistent performances and a frustrating tendency to disappear from entire halves left Villanova fans begging for more. With one more chance his senior year, the pressure was on for Bell to lead his team back to the top of the Big East.
Here's how Bell compared to his preseason predictions:
What was expected
James shot off to a blazing start, scoring 24 points and adding 9 boards against Lafayette. But was it just a tease? As we wrote in the Wisdom of Crowds:
Best Case Scenario: Bell's consistent improvement shooting the ball from the outside continues, and he closes in on 40% from beyond the arc, giving Villanova the reliable shooter to stretch the defense that it so desperately needs. His defensive ability allows him to shut down the conference's best offensive players and he's the leader of Villanova's stellar D.
Worst Case Scenario: Bell's offense is limiting to the occasional shot from the outside as he struggles to find his mid-range game. The shooting numbers go down, and Bell's defense isn't enough to warrant his high minutes ahead of more productive younger players Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart leading to dissent from the fanbase.
We certainly saw the James "Tahj" Bell side of the senior forward this season, as Bell made leaps and bounds in multiple facets of the game. First and foremost, Bell finally turned into the consistent scorer the Wildcats needed. He scored in double digits in the opening 9 games, and went through a ten game stretch during the onset of conference play where he averaged 20 ppg. As a whole, the variability of his performances decreased in comparison to his prior years as a Wildcat.
Bell's eye test backs up his statistical improvement. During his first three seasons, James' offensive game was limited to easy points in transition or spot up three-pointers. But this season, he demonstrated at least the capability of expanding his arsenal. Bell added a very nice mid-range jumper to his list of shots, aided by his especially high release point. Additionally, James showed an increased willingness to take the ball to the basket off the dribble. Coupled with his career high 37% form beyond the arc, Bell proved to be a player opposing coaches had to center their defensive gameplans around.
On defense, the senior leader lived up to the billing as one of the premier stoppers in the Big East. Bell showed off his athletic versatility by guarding the two through four positions regularly, and even taking on the opponents big man in times of need. However, he was also plagued by foul trouble during far too many games this season. Perhaps its a symptom of consistently guarding the opponents best wing player, but it seemed like every other game Bell would find himself on the bench with two fouls 12 minutes to play in first half. While his increased maturity allowed him to reassert himself offensively once he took the court again, Bell's absence was palpable as Villanova's offense sputtered without their captain.
Vote from Wisdom of Crowds
In Wisdom of Crowds, readers cast their votes on how many points Bell would average this season. There was little consensus on how the senior would perform, as six different options between 9.7 and 12.2 points received at least ten percent of the vote. Considering the skew of the distribution, the consensus settled around 11.4 points per game.
But what pessimists we were! James Bell exceeded even the highest of expectations and turned in a career high 14.4 ppg, a full two points higher than the most optimistic voting option.
Bell improved significantly in nearly every aspect of the game. He shot career high percentages in field goal percentage, three point percentage, and free throw percentage, especially impressive considering his volume increased by 50% from the floor and nearly 100% from the charity stripe. His stamped his impact on defense with a combined 2 steals+blocks per game.
James Bell played like an archangel in his final Holy Way against Saint Joseph's. The senior turned on the burners in the second half and totaled 25 points on 5-10 shooting from distance and 14 boards. The game was viewed as validation for both Bell and the Wildcat team, proving that their surprise run in the Battle 4 Atlantis was certainly not a fluke.
This one stung. At a time when teams count on their seniors the most, James Bell disappeared in the opening round of the Big East Tournament against Seton Hall. His final conference tournament game was highlighted (lowlighted?) by a total of only 3 points. Bell went 0-8 from the field.
A- - This season can considered nothing but a success for James Tahj Bell. After battling through adversity during each of his first three years as a Wildcat, James finally found the success he deserved on the court after working so hard to keep himself healthy and on it it. His game showed significant improvement both statistically and from an visual standpoint. While perfectionists will point to his continued inconsistency and tendency to find himself in foul trouble, one fact remains central above all others -- Tahj was a winner. Villanova's team clearly looked up to their senior captain with admiration; he validated their respect with hustle and grit on the court. He was the prototypical Villanova senior, and one that will be sorely missed next season.