As the Oregon Ducks’ charter bus nears University of Phoenix Stadium on Saturday for the Final Four, the memories will come flooding back for junior point guard Casey Benson.
He’ll glance at Gila River Arena across the street and think of the three consecutive state championships (2012, 2013 and 2014) he won there while at Tempe Corona del Sol. He’ll linger on the games, his teammates and his coach, Sam Duane Jr., whom he still talks to or texts at least once a week.
And then he’ll consider the opportunity in front of him: To win an NCAA title, at home, in front of family and friends. That’s a pretty sweet circle to close.
“Yeah, I couldn’t have written it any better,” Benson said. “It’s pretty neat to have the chance to go win a fourth championship in Glendale.”
Of course, there’s always the flip side of returning home: Ticket requests. Benson has been flooded with them. He’s hit up teammates, but they’re using their allotment. His backup plan?
“My dad might need to buy some,” he said.
Whatever Benson does, it won’t dilute his preparation for Saturday’s game against North Carolina. The team will come first, as it always has.
At Corona, Benson was the star, the ball in his hands in the closing seconds, the game his to win or lose. But he was also, Duane said, “One of the best team players I’ve ever coached. It’s never been about Casey. It’s always been about winning.”
That’s been the case at Oregon, as well. Benson might have been the Gatorade Player of the Year in 2014 after averaging 17.8 points per game for Corona but the Ducks haven’t needed him to be “the guy.” Instead, coach Dana Altman has asked him to sacrifice his offense for the betterment of the team. Don’t be a scorer. Set up guys like Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey. Run the offense. Control the tempo.
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Benson hasn’t averaged more than six points per game in any of his three seasons in Oregon but he’s done precisely what Altman wanted. Last year, as a sophomore, he set an NCAA record with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.88-to-1.
“I think when you’ve got so many talented guys like we do who can score the basketball my role is more of a facilitator,” Benson said. “It’s been a different role from what I was in high school but being selfish isn’t what’s best for our team. At the end of the day, it’s about wanting to win.”
That adjustment became even more pronounced this season when Altman decided to start freshman Payton Pritchard at point guard, relegating Benson to coming off the bench. Some players may have grumbled about the reduced role. But Benson never complained. Instead, he’s thrived; his 3-point shooting has jumped from 36.2 percent to 40.3 percent and he’s become more assertive offensively while understanding his place in Oregon’s pecking order; in a two-game sweep of California and Stanford, he was 8 of 9 from 3-point range.
“He’s a glue guy,” Altman said.
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That’s about the nicest compliment Benson could receive, and one he heard often at Corona, even when he was one of the best players in the state.
“He was always trying to get everybody involved,” Duane said. “He was a coach on the floor. Watch him play over a period of time, and you see how he really runs things for Oregon. He has a lot of responsibility.”
Ask Benson what he remembers most about his high school career and he says, “That was such a great ride. It was just going out and playing loose and free and having fun. And the tradition of winning championships, obviously.”
Now, a fourth title beckons, just a stone’s throw away.
“It’s exciting knowing I’m going back home. Extremely exciting,” Benson said. “It will be great to be able to see friends and family. But the task at hand is wanting to win a national championship.”
It’s like Duane said. With Benson, “it’s always been about winning.”