SYRACUSE, N.Y. - On Dec. 28, 2012, James Bell had one point and one rebound in a Villanova win over NJIT. Exactly 1 year later, Bell exploded for 25 points and five rebounds against second-ranked Syracuse.
What a difference a year makes.
"I'm really proud of him," Villanova coach Jay Wright said after the Wildcats lost, 78-62, on Saturday at the Carrier Dome. "He played with a lot of heart. He defended. He really played like a senior. I was really, really proud of him. He was outstanding."
Bell, a senior guard, has had a season worthy of a most improved player award in Philadelphia, if not the nation. Last year, he averaged 8.6 points per game. This year, he is just about doubling that offensive production, dumping in 16.2 points per contest. He feels a responsibility to score more this season.
"I'm a senior. I have to make some plays," Bell said after the loss.
The Orlando, Fla., native has made plenty of plays for the Wildcats this season. He is now leading the team in scoring average after his 25-point day. He also chips in 6.3 rebounds per game. But Bell says he tries to make an impact on more than just offense.
"I take a lot of pride in being one of the senior leaders, but it is not just scoring," Bell said. "Rebounding, getting deflections and steals. The things that maybe if I don't have 20, I can still affect the game and get us a win."
Bell, along with transfer Tony Chennault and Nick McMahon are the only three seniors on the team. Bell is the only guy to have been at Villanova all 4 years, and has seen significant playing time. The team looks to him both in games and at practice for added intensity.
"That's our senior. That's our leader. We follow him. He did great things offensively and defensively," Dylan Ennis said after the Syracuse loss. "He plays with such a fire because he knows this is his last year. You can see it in him. That's what all of us have to pick up as well."
Bell has led his team to an 11-1 start; its 11-0 start was the best since 1961. The Wildcats have wins over Kansas and Iowa in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament. The added time on the Main Line this summer is one reason why Bell is playing at such a high level so far.
"We all worked really hard this summer," Bell said. "It was different than most because we could actually practice during the summertime [because of a change in NCAA rules]. It was a lot of hard work and actual focus on getting better individually."
The change in practice rules for the summer sessions has helped Bell and the Wildcats, who cracked the Top 10 in the Associated Press poll for the first time since the 2010-11 season. Bell has been the go-to guy both in the summer and during Villanova's first 12 games.
"When you see someone getting it going, you want to make sure you don't bring down the bar," Ennis said. "He sets the bar high for us, and we try and follow him."
Bell was fifth on the team in scoring last year, and has vaulted himself up to leading scorer. He has a higher shooting percentage and is grabbing more rebounds in the same amount of minutes played last year.
"I am taking more shots, and I am probably a better shooter at this point," Bell said.
When it comes to being a Top 10 team, there are obviously good shooters on the team. Villanova boasts one of the best scoring offenses in the nation. Bell also is working on the less obvious things that help teams win.
"Just focusing on the little things," Bell said. "Coach Wright harps on that a lot. Catching and shooting, and just making my game off that. Not trying to do too much, just staying within myself."