VILLANOVA -- James Taj Bell returned to Villanova from Europe with much more than he left with.
Not souvenirs. Not clothes. Just basketball knowledge.
After 2 12 weeks playing for the U.S. national team in the FIBA Under-19 World Basketball Championships in Riga, Latvia, Bell returned with the intelligence and wisdom and savvy he accumulated by playing basketball against some of the best young players in the world on an international stage.
Bella rising sophomore at Villanovastarted for the U.S. team, which went 7-2 in the tourney earlier this month, losing to Russia in the quarterfinals before winning the fifth-place game by one point over Australia.
It was a great experience, Bell said Thursday. I try to bring what we did over there back hereplaying hard every play, being a leader on the court, always having a positive attitude. Its an experience not everybody gets to have, but everything I learned over there, I want to bring that to everything I do here.
The style overseas is like the Big East. Its very physical. You have to play hard all the time. Its a faster pace, they value the ball, they dont turn it over, every possession counts. I think more than anything it helped me to realize how important playing together is. Theyre big on playing together over there.
Bell, a 6-foot-5 swing guard, arrived at Villanova a year ago as a highly touted recruit, but he missed the entire off-season before his freshman year thanks to serious leg injuries that kept him off the court for six months and eventually required matching surgeries to repair both tibias.
He elected not to red-shirt because he just wanted to help out his teammates any way he could, and it took until halfway through the Big East season before he could play more than a few minutes at a time. Bell wound up averaging nine minutes per game and had one breakout 21-point game at Seton Hall, but without an offseason or preseason workouts, he never came close to showing what kind of player he really is.
Taj is an amazing dude, coach Jay Wright said Thursday. In the fall, we teach all our fundamentalsour defensive concepts, our offensive concepts, our footwork, all the basics. He missed everything. I wanted him to red-shirt, but he wanted to play, and we ended up needing him. But he didnt even start working out until December. He missed so much, but we didnt want to give him extra, because we didnt want to re-injure him.
So because of all that, I think playing in the world championships probably served him more than anybody on that team just because of how much time he missed in his freshman year. Weve only had one practice so far (for next months Europe trip), and I can already tell the difference.
Bell averaged 3.8 points and 3.1 rebounds per game in Latvia, and the numbers might seem modest, but this team had plenty of scorers. Bells main role was defending the top perimeter player on the opposing team, and its his ability as a perimeter defender that sets him apart from most players.
I got to guard the best player on pretty much every team we played, and that was a great challenge and a great experience, he said. Everything I did out there put me in a better position out there to help our team.
As soon as Bell finished unpacking from his trip to Europe, he began packing again, because Villanova leaves on Aug. 7 for its trip to France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, where the 2012 Wildcats will play five exhibition games in August.
NCAA teams are allowed one such overseas trip every four years, and new NCAA rules mean that Villanovas five incoming freshmen are allowed to make the trip. Without that rule, Nova wouldnt even have enough players to participate.
NCAA rules also allow any team going overseas during the offseason to practice 10 times during the summer. The first of those practices were Wednesday and Thursday at the David Center across the street from the Pavillion, and they were the first chance for this new Nova teamminus Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Antonio Pena and plus highly touted freshmen Darrun Hilliard, JayVaughn Pinkston, Achraf Yacoubou, Ty Johnson and Markus Kennedyto begin preparing for the 2011-2012 season.
Its going to be great going over there as a team, Bell said. Its great for the entire team but especially the freshmen, because it puts them in a great positiontheyre getting the foundation now and then they can build on it. Our team is so young, and once the season starts, theyll all be ahead of the curve, because theyre learning it now instead of later, and that will enable us to move faster once the season starts.
Villanovas 2011 season ended with six straight losses. The Wildcats, 17-1 after 18 games and ranked as high as No. 6 in the country at one point, mysteriously lost 10 of their next 16 games, including first-round upsets in the Big East and NCAA tournaments.
I wouldnt say we talk about what happened last year, but in the back of our minds, we all know what happened, and we dont want to let what happened last year happen again, Bell said. Not this year, the next year, or the year after that. Thats not what we are as basketball players.
Weve just got to come together and just be one. If we play together, play hard, play smart, then well be good. Us going away and having nobody to rely on but ourtselves, that will be real good for us and put us in a situation where once the season starts, weve been in tough situations, weve been together as a group away from home, and we know that were able to handle anything. I think this trip is going to be great for us.
E-mail Reuben Frank at email@example.com