By MIKE ANGELINA
Who is James “Taj” Bell and what exactly does he bring to the Villanova Wildcats? If you’re into stats, he is the leading scorer and rebounder on a top-ten team in the nation.
But that stat line does not even begin to represent what he has brought to the court for the No. 8 Wildcats this season, according to his Head Coach of four years, Jay Wright.
“James Bell is much more than his 27 points, eight rebounds,” Wright declared after one of Bell’s typical games earlier this season. “It sounds kind of corny, but he is.”
Well then what is he? Simply put, he is the leader of a very good team. There have been countless examples of him leading Villanova this season.
He set the tone to the season by scoring the first 13 points in the Wildcats’ first game.
In the championship-clinching game of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, with Villanova trailing by 12 points late in the game, he sparked the rally. His trio of three-pointers, all in a span of 72 seconds, turned that game around. It was almost like the tournament MVP was telling his team, “Let’s go!”.
Against Syracuse, now the top team in the nation, he had a monster game and put up 25 points in a game Villanova led by 19 at one point, hitting three treys in the opening five minutes. In an overtime battle against Marquette, a game in which the ‘Cats were robbed of the winning basket on a horrendous call, he stepped up and dropped a career-high 30 points. Instead of the team being deflated after the tough call, he kept the team composed and they were on their way to victory.
Two days later, he was Mr. Everything against rival Georgetown to seal another win. Then, against Big 5 rival Temple, on the road, he got things going with a three twenty seconds into action.
Then there was the game against Xavier, which seemed extra special. He handled everything. When things got close, he took off, launching five second-half threes. And when Musketeers guard Semaj Christon grabbed Daniel Ochefu and trash talked while trailing by nearly 20 points, it was Bell who pulled Ochefu aside.
Wright knew that he did not need to say anything to his team, but rather just tell Bell what the senior already knew.
“I just told him, ‘This is your team, and look at what they’re doing,” Wright said. “We just have to get better.”
Bell just said, “I know.”
According to Wright, this is a conversation that they have often. Wright says that because Bell is such a “good kid” and he is tempted to just “love him up”, he has to constantly remind himself to push his guard. Plus, he knows if he speaks to just Bell, the senior can handle taking care of everyone else.
“Everyone knows I can go just at him, and not go crazy at everyone else and just go at him, and he handles the rest of team, Wright said”
Fran Dunphy, the Temple head coach who witnessed Bell in person on Feb. 1, called Bell Nova’s “catalyst”, with which Wright agrees. Being a catalyst and the voice that everyone will listen to is an indication of just how much everyone respects Bell.
“Taj has been through it all, he takes responsibility for everyone on the court and he takes responsibility for everyone off the court,” Wright said. “Everyone knows I can go just at him, and not go crazy at everyone else and just go at him, and he handles the rest of team.”
A system like that only works if the players listen to him, which they certainly do.
“Before the games, he’s the one always talking,” Ryan Arcidiacono, Bell’s teammate of two years told Philahoops. “When he talks, everyone quiets down.”
Through not just his words but also his actions, Bell is the “voice of reason”. A play that sticks out was during the Seton Hall game on Feb. 7. Villanova looked to be on the wrong end of a series of questionable calls. Wright and several players were upset and emotional on the bench. While they were visibly frustrated, it was Bell who stood up, did not open his mouth and simply clapped for about ten seconds.
Through his non-verbal actions, he was still speaking to them. It was like he was saying, “It’s okay, let’s go guys,” with each clap being more assuring than the previous one. They took off from there and cruised to a 17-point victory.
Bell, who views himself as the Wildcats’ older brother, embraces the role and accepts responsibility for everyone and everything. He says it’s a product of being their most tenured player and being on the receiving end of having the coaches’ utmost respect.
“I’ve been here four years, and seen it all and I have the coaching staff and coach’s confidence,” Bell explained. “It just allows me to explain that to the team. They look at me as the older brother, and I take that role. Everything is on me, good or bad, and I think they respect me for that and it makes us a better team.”
His rise to stardom (he’s expected to be named to the All-Big East team) was not a smooth one. Injuries derailed his first two seasons as he was constantly in the trainer’s office, nursing his ankles.
In some cases, that could be a turnoff for coaches, a player always being injured. But Wright was able to stick by his man and kept his trust in “Taj”.
From the moment he got to know Bell, he could see that he instantly got the “Villanova tradition” of the basketball program Wright has presided over for the past 13 years. You see, Bell was like no other recruit. In fact, he was not a “recruit” in the literal sense that Wright and the athletic department hunted him down. Rather, it was Bell that came to Wright and the Wildcats, seeking to be a part of “Nova Nation.”
Despite being an Orlando, Fla. native, Bell knew all about the culture at the institution. He had family up North and, coincidentally, the Wildcats made their 2009 Final Four run while he was in high school, as well as their strong 2006 campaign.
“He knew what Villanova was all about; we didn’t have to tell him,” Wright explained.
Though Bell was not quite himself physically his first few years, Wright knew he had the potential to blossom into the player—and more importantly the leader—that they needed. He just had that attitude about him. Plus they knew of all his high-school accomplishments, including being named Lake County Player of the Year two consecutive years.
“We knew what we had in him,” Wright declared.
Players like that make talented teams great. Picking his teammates up when they needed it, calming each situation and guiding them on and off-the court, you could argue, is the difference between Villanova being a top-10 team and just a ranked team. It’s hard to quantify it, but it makes you wonder if not for Bell’s leadership, they could have let a handful of games slip away.
Instead of a great team, they are now a special team. And that’s a direct result of being more than his 15 or so points each night—he’s a special leader of this special team.
“When you have a special team, you have special leaders like that,” Wright noted.
Dunphy, who has coached for 25 consecutive seasons across three different conferences, has seen it all in college hoops. He points out that the difference between typical college teams and those special, unique teams is when the leadership comes from within the players.
“I think all of us in this profession would tell you, that when the leadership comes from the group, it is much more meaningful than when it comes from the coaches,” he explained.
For that, he credits Bell.
“I just think there is a toughness about him, and them and the group,” he said. “I would credit Bell for a number of reasons.
That type of leadership has gotten them to near the top of the AP polls. After all, the team started the season and went a handful of weeks unranked. It was not until Bell’s MVP run in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament and the comeback he engineered in the championship game that earned them a ranked status.
“It has to come from the group, and I think that’s why they are what they are,” Dunphy explained.
Dunphy means that as no slight to Wright, the head coach. He just thinks it makes all the difference in the world having that type of player in the room who can guide his peers. A man in his 50’s, as Wright is, telling a group of college kids what to do is not quite the same as a fellow college student leading them.
Wright gets it.
“A smart basketball person knows that,” Wright said.
And now, as Bell gets set to suit up for his final game on Villanova’s campus at the Pavilion, Wright could not be more proud of his senior. Bell will be honored before tonight’s game against Butler for his tenure at the program as part of “Senior Night”, a celebration at which he is the star.
“It’s nice to see it from a guy that works hard over four years,” he told Philahoops. “I think he’s embraced the culture of the university, he’s really unselfish kid, and it’s nice to see it pay off for him.”