What’s the difference between the leading scorer on the Villanova Wildcats and the Kentucky Wildcats?
Aside from the school name you’ll never hear this from one of John Calipari’s players: "I feel like I’m having a season like a Villanova senior should have.’’
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Those are the word of James Bell, whose career on the Main Line got off to an inauspicious start primarily due to injuries that left him with rods in both his legs. But the combination of hard word, perseverance and basic maturity has turned Bell from a benchwarmer, averaging 2.4 as a freshman into not only the ‘Cats leading scorer but their unquestioned team leader.
Just one of the many reasons Jay Wright’s club is 20-2 No. 6 in the rankings, after hammering Xavier 81-58 Monday night, a game in which they led wire-to-wire.
The 6-6 Bell scored 27 points in that one, all coming after the first 14 minutes as he boosted his average to a team best 15.8. Juniors Darrun Hilliard (13.7) added 17, 15 in the second half, with JayVaughn Pinkston (14.7) chipping in 11. Whenever Xavier threatened to close the gap, they had the answers.
That’s a luxury Calipari never has at Kentucky. His Wildcats rarely even bother paying attention to the questions since most of them are already headed out the door for the NBA almost as soon as they arrive. His only two seniors average a combined 2.6 points.
Much as Wright might envy Calipari’s knack of luring pure thoroughbreds to Lexington every year, he loves being able to lean on his upperclassmen.
"Juniors and seniors, man. It’s just so nice to have them,’’ said an appreciative Wright, as the Wildcats moved into a share of the Big East lead with Creighton at 9-1. "They've seen it all.They've been there—through the ups and downs. Nothing bothers them. They know what we need. They come out and do it.’’
In Bell’s case it hardly happened overnight. Stress fractures to the tibias in both his legs short circuited his high school career, then forced him to get off to slow start when he arrived on campus. But each year he’s improved, to the point he’s become ‘Nova’s main weapon, draining six of his patented high arc-ing 3-pointers in the second half the other night.
No one’s more surprised than No. 32.
"I never thought I’d play this well,’’ said Bell, who grew up in Plainfield, NJ , then moved to Orlando, where he became a highly sought after player. "But I’ve been through a lot as player and they stuck with me.I've been here four years. I've seen a lot. My teammates look at me as the older brother, and I take that role. Everything is pretty much on me, good or bad.I think they respect me for it and it makes us a better team."
Especially since Wright knows he can always count on his veteran leaders, especially Bell.
"He's the only guy that's been in the program for four years,’’ said Wright of Bell, who had never averaged more than 8.6 points until this season. "He takes responsibility for everybody off the court.He takes responsibility on the court. There are times I can just go at him and then he just gets it done with the team.When you have special teams, you have special leaders like that.’’
It may not have been the way he planned his career would go, but James Bell cherishes his role now.
"I had stress fractures in both my tibias so I have rods in both my shins,’’ he revealed. "Everybody’s path is different. Coach always says that.It might not be what you wanted at the time. But with faith, with confidence, anything’s possible. I just worked hard.’’
Now it’s all being rewarded. But Bell and the Wildcats know better than to rest on their laurels. They’ve seen Villanova get off to great starts in recent years, then fade down the stretch. Having gone through some of that, as well as a 19-loss season just two years ago, they won’t let the rankings and the accolades reverberating around town, go to their heads.
"We’ve got to focus on all the little things,’’ said Bell, as the Wildcats have won four straight since the 96-68 Creighton debacle here two weeks ago. "Stick with what we do.We’ve been through almost every situation. We can get through anything if we stick together.’’
That’s something you can only learn through experience, which just doesn’t happen when you play at Kentucky. John Calipari may have his thoroughbreds. But Jay Wright will takes his chances with guys like James Bell who’ve been through the wars.
They’ve learned what it takes to win the battle.