It's hard to stand tall when the world keeps pulling the rug out from under you. Villanova's Michael Bradley knows this all too well, which is why the 6'10" junior isn't the least bit surprised at how well he has played this season, even if everyone else seems to be. "I always knew I had this in me," says Bradley, who through Wednesday was averaging 21.5 points and 8.8 rebounds for the 9-2 Wildcats. "It was just a matter of finding the right situation."
That search hasn't been easy. A native of Worcester, Mass., Bradley intended to play for Boston College, but in the fall of 1996 he rescinded his oral commitment after BC denied admission to two of his AAU teammates. He then strongly considered going to Villanova, but chose instead to play at Kentucky for Rick Pitino, who bolted to become president and coach of the Boston Celtics before Bradley ever played a game in Lexington. Bradley was a role player on Tubby Smith's 1998 national championship team, but the next season, even though he started all 37 games, he averaged only 21.9 minutes. Says Villanova coach Steve Lappas, "He was looking to go somewhere where he could play 32 minutes a night and be involved in everything. I thought we'd be a great fit."
At Villanova, Bradley has demonstrated wide shooting range for a big man (including making 7 of 18 three-point attempts), and his field goal percentage is an astonishing 70.9%. Bradley has also proved to be a deft passer (2.3 assists per game) and shot blocker (2.2 per game). "He'll be a very good NBA player," one Eastern Conference scout says. "He can make threes, and he's a great passer, almost to a fault because he passes up open shots." Adds Lappas, "I thought he'd be good, but not this good. I'm not saying he's Larry Bird, but I'll tell you what: He learned a lot from Larry Bird."
That was inevitable for a hoops fanatic growing up near Boston. Bradley has been competing in organized basketball since age four, when he played for a YMCA team coached by his father, Dave, who was a center for Fairfield in the 1970s. As a senior at Burncoat High in '96-97, Michael averaged 35.6 points, 11.6 rebounds and 4.9 blocks a game and was named the state's Mr. Basketball. "Michael didn't collect baseball cards, he didn't hang out and didn't go to movies," Dave says. "It was all basketball."
The benefits of Bradley's hard work were obvious in the second game of this season, when he scored 28 points (on 12 of 16 shooting) to go along with eight rebounds and six assists in a 98-85 loss at Duke. "It takes awhile to get used to playing with him," says sophomore forward Aaron Matthews. "I don't know how many times I've cut to the basket and he's passed it off my forehead."
It may be awhile longer before Bradley stops taking people by surprise, but in the meantime he is happy to be settling in at Villanova, where Lappas's motion game suits him perfectly. "I've waited a long time to be in a system where I could develop my all-around game," he says. "I'm intent on making the most of this."