April 25, 2014
The Nova Notebook, by director of media relations Mike Sheridan, takes a look back at 2013-14 and beyond with soon to be Villanova graduate James Bell.
The transition is abrupt, sometimes cruelly so.
In a matter of one evening, a decorated college basketball player transitions from team bellwether to alumnus in waiting. It is the bottom-line nature of the NCAA Tournament and for Villanova senior James Bell the end came near midnight on the court of Buffalo's First Niagara Center last month, far from the stage in Orlando, Florida that had launched this portion of his basketball journey.
The eventual champion Connecticut Huskies ousted the Wildcats 77-65 from the 2014 NCAA Tournament, ending a campaign that delivered Villanova its first outright BIG EAST regulars season crown since 1982 and 29 victories, the second highest total in program history.
In the four weeks since that night, Bell has been busy getting on with the business of the next stage of his life. There is the matter of a spring semester to complete - he is scheduled to graduate on time next month with the rest of the University's class of 2014 - and a whole new basketball identity to embrace.
The first major step in that process began last week in Portsmouth, Va., when Bell joined other seniors from across the country at the Portsmouth Invitational in front of professional scouts from the National Basketball Association.
"I definitely enjoyed it," stated Bell, whose stint was highlighted by a 27-point outburst in a contest on the final day of competition. "It was great seeing all the players you have read about. There was a good group of coaches and it was nice learning from the group of NBA assistant coaches that we had."
Among the host of technical adjustments each aspiring professional must make - from a different brand of basketball used by most colleges to a shorter shot clock - there is the inescapable reality that each one of these opportunities are essentially job interviews. And that ushers in a new reality.
"It's different coming from a place where we have so much structure but so much freedom," notes Bell. "Out there, it was completely playing off concepts and doing things on the fly. You were with a group of teammates you never played with before. It was interesting to see how we jelled - we didn't win three games but we came out with a winning record."
At first glance, Bell's daily life looks much the same as it did two months ago. He continues to spend lots of time with his erstwhile teammates away from the court and often joins them for open gym sessions in the Davis Center. Yet though there are some parallels, his basketball path is now separate and distinct from the rest of the 2013-14 Wildcats. His extra shooting work is done with an NBA basketball and individual workouts are geared to preparation for the next few months of auditions.
"I am on the doorstep of this and it's a great opportunity," states Bell of his nascent professional career. "It's what we all dream of as kids. I'm so close yet I'm so far. I've still got to get one team to like me and be confident of who I am as a player and what I've done so far."
Bell is grateful for the experiences he shared at Villanova and especially the last two seasons spent as a team captain.
"It's prepared me in a lot of ways," he explains. "It made me responsible. It made me a man. It taught me what hard work is. I'm going to need all three of those traits at the next level and I'll be tested even more. If I'm playing or if I'm not playing, how's my attitude? At the same time, I'm still going to have to work to get better.
"Everything is going to be new to me. I have to approach everything with a great attitude and see where it takes me."
A number of Bell's former teammates and friends have been through this unique sort of evaluation in recent seasons and he has solicited input from several of them. He's also leaned on head coach Jay Wright and the Wildcats' staff for advice. There have been a few consistent themes in those suggestions.
"Be in the best shape possible," states Bell. "Be open, push yourself, work hard and everything else will take care of itself."
While he has his eyes intently focused on the road ahead, Bell is still coming to grips with the notion that his time as a Wildcats player is at an end.
"I said this in Buffalo and it's still true now - it doesn't feel real," he says. "I still see the same guys every day so it doesn't seem real. It feels like I'll be coming back for the summer session (in June). It will probably hit me at Graduation."
Though it ended sooner than he or any of his teammates had hoped, the passage of time has allowed Bell to focus on all of the good things that happened in a 29-5 season that vaulted Villanova back into the top 10 of both major national polls.
"Looking back, there's no group I would rather have done it with," states Bell, who was selected as a BIG EAST first team selection and the Philadelphia Big 5 Player of the Year. "I'm proud of us and proud of where we came from.
"We don't really have expectations at the start of the season. But realistically at the start of the season nobody ever thought we were going to be as good as we were. Winning the Big East championship was big. Being up there with the '06 team and all of those great players who have done it before us is important.
"We had that special `it' factor. We all loved each other and it worked out for us."
Bell is the only starter from that unit who isn't due to return in 2014-15 but his absence will surely be felt. His impact could be felt in many subtle ways beyond the obvious points and rebounds he provided. Yet as the 6-6 swingman embarks on his journey, the man friends and family call "Tahj" is convinced that the Wildcats whom he likens to "younger brothers" are well-equipped to move forward.
"They've got a good group of guys," he notes. "It will be interesting to see who steps up in terms of becoming a leader with (Ryan Arcidiacono). They've got a chance to be special if they keep the same attitude we had this year. If they go at the same goal with 100 percent effort, it's scary how good they can be."
There is one final act for Bell at Villanova with commencement exercises set for May 16. It's a date that Bell and his family have had circled on the calendar for some time.
"My mother told me a while ago that she wasn't going to be able to pay for my college experience," Bell recalls. "If I wanted to get there, I had to put in the work and put myself in that position. I'm proud to be getting that diploma, especially because it's from Villanova."
James Bell's collegiate circle is nearly closed.
Soon he will enter a new realm equipped with his skill, tenacity, and yes, attitude, in what looms as a spirited bid to measure himself against the top artisans of his craft.