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Villanova's Bell not worried about shooting slump

James Bell’s shot has gone missing recently. But the senior isn’t letting that affect his approach to the NCAA Tournament.

Villanova's James Bell. (Seth Wenig/AP)
Villanova's James Bell. (Seth Wenig/AP)Read more

JAMES BELL, Villanova's only 4-year senior, is the place where it all starts. On a team that gets leadership from many sources, he is the unquestioned man.

But scoring has never defined him. He won't allow it. Neither will the rest of the Wildcats.

The last six games, as he approached his 1,000th career point, his shot has gone missing. There was a time this year, as Temple coach Fran Dunphy noted, that everything Bell put up looked like it was going in. That was after Bell made five three-pointers, most of them contested, against the Owls in a 90-74 win at the Liacouras Center on Feb. 1. But in the last six games he's 12-for-44 from the field, 7-for-28 from the arc. The Wildcats (28-4) still won five of those games, which is all that really matters, although the blemish was in their last one, a one-pointer to eighth-seeded Seton Hall in the Big East quarterfinals Thursday in New York. Bell went 0-for-8, 0-for-5, and even missed a dunk. The fact that he still had team-highs of eight rebounds and four assists didn't seem to count, at least to outsiders. Inside the Villanova locker room, it meant everything. It always has.

"It's not something I worry about," Bell said. "That's why there's five of us on the court. We just don't depend on me for scoring, win or lose. So it's not something I focus on.

"I trust the work I put in, how hard I work. I feel the same way about my shot as everyone else feels about their shot on this team. We all understand. It's something we get over time, being in the program. It definitely takes time to be comfortable not making shots and still affect a game. We don't care who gets the credit. Scoring is something that gets you the credit. That's not what we're about, as a team. There's a lot of other things we value."

The Wildcats are seeded second in the East Regional of the NCAA Tournament. They'll open late tomorrow night in Buffalo against 15th-seeded Milwaukee (21-13), which won the Horizon League tourney after being picked to finish last and going 7-9 in the regular season. The winner gets either Connecticut (26-8) or Saint Joseph's (24-9) on Saturday. The Wildcats haven't won an NCAA game since 2010, which was also the last time they were seeded this high. They haven't made it to the second week since 2009, when they got to the national semifinals. They probably need some big efforts by their first-team all-conference guy to make a deep run. In the last six games he's averaged just under eight points. In the 10 before that he scored between 16 and 30. One of these games is going to be his last.

"It sounds crazy even saying that," said Bell, who battled injuries his first two seasons. "I want to go out the right way, have a great end to the season. But we have to focus on how we do it. We can't worry about winning or losing. If we go out and play how we feel we're supposed to play, we believe that's going to get us the best result. If we do that and lose, that's just what happens. We could walk away feeling OK with it.

"If I'm not scoring, I'll do the little things and be happy with the way I play. We have other guys who are capable of picking me up, picking us up, bring us to another level. I might not have my best day. But we have guys who've been here, and even the younger guys, who've shown what they can do. I'm always messing with [junior guard Darrun Hillard, who's been the offensive catalyst of late]. He's a quiet kid, who keeps to himself. But he's a killer on the court."

Who do you think he got that from?

"James is James," Hilliard said. "That's the last guy we worry about. That's the beauty of this team. No one really has to carry us. We all can do it. James still works hard, every day. We know he's going to guard the other team's best offensive player, he's going to rebound. We value that as a program. I value that, as his friend. We know he's going to make shots."

Bell fell into a similar slump earlier this season and emerged without a scar. He doesn't need to convince any of his guys what he's capable of. And that goes way beyond the stat sheet.

"I just told him [that]," said coach Jay Wright. "He comes in to shoot every day. I brought him up into the office, said, 'Do what you do. If you're going to go 0-for-8, just go be you.' He's carried us all year. We're here because of him. If we're going down, we're going down with him. He always comes back. We count on him to do a lot of things. I know he will. Let's hope it's Thursday. If not, other guys will step up. I really believe that."

These Wildcats had the best regular season in program history. They're two wins away from tying the overall season record. It just doesn't happen. There were a lot of factors. Bell was the biggest. The next week or so could only solidify that legacy.

"We've put ourselves in a great position," he said. "And we've put some younger guys in a great position to lead next year. That's why it's a program. It's not just about yourself. It can't be. That's not what's stressed here.

"If I have 30, it doesn't matter. Or if I have six. As long as we continue to play the way we should be playing, and the way I know we need to play, that's enough for any of us. Scoring 30 and losing and scoring six in a win are two different things.

"Are there nights when the ball's going in? Definitely. Does it help us? Yes. But when it's not, you have to find other ways. Simple as that. To be honest, I've shot so much it always feels good when it goes up. As a shooter, you have to be able to think that way. It's tough when you don't see them go in. But I have confidence in myself."

Makes sense, because so does everyone around him. That's definitive enough.