College basketball is obsessed with fresh faces. A quick glance at the sport's headlines would indicate that, whether they belong to one-and-done freshmen or late-career transfers, the only players who are shaping the course of this season are transients.
But there is another faction of players that is having a significant, if less heralded impact: Call them late bloomers. In an age when making it to your senior year can do grave damage to your street cred, these guys have stuck with the same program and coach for four years, and they've survived injuries, limited playing time and/or normal maturation to have breakout seasons.
With a number of top players out early in the season because of suspensions, illness or ineligibility, No. 7 Florida might have foundered had career role player Casey Prather not emerged as a star in his final season, averaging 17.0 points per game, nearly triple last year's number. Cincinnati would not be 17--2, undefeated in American Athletic Conference play and ranked 19th without 6'8" senior forward Justin Jackson, a career defensive specialist who packed on 20 pounds of muscle in the off-season and transformed himself into one of the best low-post scorers in the league. Likewise, Pitt would not be 16--2 and ranked No. 22 without the eye-popping versatility of 6'5" fifth-year senior forward Lamar Patterson, a savvy passer whose assists (4.5) and points (17.6) averages are nearly double last year's.
The biggest surprise of the season, though, is Villlanova, a team picked to finish fourth in the Big East but now being touted as a Final Four contender. The No. 6 Wildcats have a late bloomer to thank—but 6'6" senior guard James Bell doesn't think of himself that way. "Everybody has their own path; this just happens to be mine," he says. "I wouldn't say it's late."
Bell's blossoming is timely. In his first two years at Villanova, the fourth-team Parade All-America from Orlando was hampered by injuries, including stress fractures so severe he had to have metal rods inserted in both legs at the beginning of his freshman year. The next season an ankle sprain kept him out of three games in February and slowed him the rest of the season. Last year he started every game, but his role was supporting: His 8.6 points per game was fifth on the team, his 4.2 rebounds third. This off-season the team's only four-year player focused, he says, on "trying to make the right play instead of making the spectacular play." Through the Cats' first 12 games, Bell delivered a team-leading 6.3 rebounds and 16.2 points a game, including a career-high-tying 25 points in a 78--62 loss at No. 2 Syracuse, the only blot on Villanova's record so far.
Bell, who goes by his middle name, Tahj, among friends and family, has polished every aspect of his game, but what has stood out is his feel for when to execute the play that is both right and spectacular: In the second half of a game against Iowa in the finals of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas in November, Bell hit three threes in 67 seconds to slash a 12-point deficit to three. The Wildcats went on to win 88--83 in overtime. "He is the ultimate senior," says coach Jay Wright. "He does whatever it takes."
Bell's nose for rebounds, his ability to guard the opponent's best player at four positions and his do-anything-to-win attitude remind Wright of 6'8" forward Dante Cunningham, who, as a senior in 2008--09, won the Big East's Most Improved Player award and led the Wildcats to the Final Four before being drafted in the second round by Portland. (He is now with Minnesota.) "Tahj is playing that same role for us," says Wright. "He's really grown into a man, and he's become a hell of a basketball player. He might not be a lottery pick, but I think he'll be very valuable to any NBA team."
In the meantime Bell is doing all he can to make his last college season both his best and his longest.
In an age when making it to your senior year can do grave damage to your street cred, Bell has had a breakout season.
JIM O'CONNOR/USA TODAY SPORTS