If you’re at all familiar with Oakland’s basketball team, you already know the Keith Benson back story. Skinny boy from the ‘burbs lands at OU, redshirts, puts on some weight, has an up-and-down first-year, then starts to show flashes of brilliance in his second year. That second year, nearing a close now, started back in November at Cleveland State when junior point guard Jonathan Jones threw a calculated pass toward the basket for a driving Benson. Kito, as he is called in these parts, grabbed the ball and dunked it, signaling the arrival of a new kind of play. In that game Kito went 6 for 9 from the field for 15 points alongside 11 rebounds. From there, our man would struggle while on a grueling nine game road trip, and the prized double-double would not return for a good month.
When Benson finally turned it on again, he did it in front a packed house at the Palace of Auburn Hills, stomping grounds for the Detroit Pistons. Not only were his 23 points and 11 boards impressive because he did it in front of so many people, but he managed to do it against DeShawn Sims and the University of Michigan Wolverines. While the game ended in a loss, as guarantee games almost always do, it nonetheless proved that Benson, long considered an unaggressive softy, had the might to stand up to superior competition.
As conference season began, it became evident that no one in the Summit League had bigs like Oakland or monsters-in-the-making like Benson. While the team slipped-up here and there, Benson remained consistent throughout, but nothing signaled his coming out more than his play in late January. He achieved double-doubles in four straight games which included an effort at South Dakota State University where he was just two blocks shy of a triple-double. Aside from one lackluster individual performance at Western Illinois on February 19, Benson has remained a constant double-double threat and, most importantly, the desired go-to target of his teammates. This is key for Oakland because in Benson the team holds the deed to Park Place and Boardwalk – a hefty advantage in any Summit League situation where most of the so-called big men battle for property on Baltic or Mediterranean.
Despite the statistical achievements, Player of the Week nods, and general props going out to this big man, criticism still looms. Even in some of his more impressive games, Benson has looked unenthused, playing in a nonchalant manner that is all too frequent in tall guys who play basketball just because they can. Yet now, perhaps more than ever, there are signs that Kito is turning the corner, crossing the proverbial Rubicon. In his most recent effort, and last home game of the season, it was the things he did when he did not have the ball that showed why this young man is living up to the potential.
For example, the Keith Benson of old would never have called for the ball or directed his teammates, yet in this game there were instances where he did both. At one point Benson, unguarded in the key, pointed his fingers upward, signaling his need for a feed so he could complete his signature alley oop dunk. When he did not get it from his first teammate, he did it again with a second and got his wish. While Benson still did not show much emotion after converting the entertaining field goal, he did do something all the more efficient: he sprinted to the other end of the court to get back on D. Longtime observers may remember a time when Kito would sluggishly jog back to his defensive post, a la Rasheed Wallace. Nowadays, though, with his shot-blocking abilities firmly entrenched in the makeup of this team’s defensive strategy, Benson appears all the more eager to take up the paint, preventing the minions from achieving the high-percentage bucket.
And then there is the frustration, one of several emotions Kito has left fans wondering if he ever feels…at all. Well, in the same match-up described above, there was an instance where Kito missed an easy lay-in. In the past, any source of frustration would come from Coach Greg Kampe, known for digging into his players from his post on the sidelines. Here, however, Kito expressed that frustration himself, offering a questioning wince as if though he was wondering how that one got away. This moment, quite possibly more than any other, is the one that is most indicative of the arrival of The New Kito, the one Kampe has constantly referred to with gigantic question marks. All along he has said it would be up to Keith Benson if Keith Benson were to achieve mid-major immortality. Now, with the conference tournament approaching, it appears that Benson has come to the realization that he can indeed creep into the realm of utter domination. Be warned.