When Keith Benson first arrived at Oakland University, he was so physically frail he struggled to even make it through practices.
Then a rail-thin 6-feet-10, 190 pounds, he was constantly berated by the coaching staff at Oakland — a commuter school just outside Detroit — and was considered such a project that some wondered whether he would give up.
But during that brutal first year, in which Benson redshirted, there was a flash of his potential. It came unsuspectingly during a practice drill in which he drove down the middle of the lane and dunked on a senior teammate.
With that, his teammates yelled in celebration before Grizzlies coach Greg Kampe halted practice, ran over to the reserved Benson and told him how to punctuate his dunk.
“Yell at him!” Kampe screamed, according to Benson.
Now, five years later, Benson is heeding that advice in his emergence as one of college basketball’s top centers and a potential first-round pick in June’s NBA Draft as 13th-seeded Oakland (25-9) heads into its second-round NCAA tournament game Friday against fourth-seeded Texas (27-7).
This season, the 6-foot-11, 230-pound redshirt senior is averaging 18.0 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.6 blocked shots per game. The latter is second best in NCAA Division I.
“It’s unbelievable,” Kampe, who is in his 27th season at Oakland, said of Benson.
And with Texas having struggled inside defensively when freshman forward Tristan Thompson gets in foul trouble, it is taking notice of Benson. In last year’s NCAA tournament, Benson had 28 points and nine rebounds in an opening-round loss to third-seeded Pittsburgh.
This season, Benson averaged 15.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.4 blocked shots against a rugged nonconference schedule of West Virginia, Purdue, Illinois, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Tennessee, the only team of those seven that Oakland beat.
“He’s a tall, lanky skilled big man,” said Thompson, who also could be a first-round pick if he leaves school early. “It’ll be a good matchup for us. He’s a perennial shot blocker. We have to contain him from blocking shots and go up strong.”
Yet Benson’s journey from a gangly misfit to stardom is one of college basketball’s most improbable stories. He even admits he had his doubts at times.
“I’m astonished,” Benson said of his success.
So is Kurt Keener, the legendary coach at Detroit Country Day School who coached Benson in high school and whose former players include Chris Webber and Shane Battier.
“I probably would have said, ‘Nah, I don’t think so,’ ” Keener said of whether he could have foreseen Benson’s success. “But the credit goes to him and his perseverance and his work and the job that the folks up at Oakland did to develop him.”
Enrolled in school a year early by his mother, Janice Hale, a professor at Wayne State University, Benson was less physically mature than his classmates as a high school freshman in 2002. Back then, he was a waif-like 6-foot-1, 120.
Benson grew a few inches his sophomore year, but was still weak physically and played on Country Day’s junior varsity. As a junior, he sprouted to 6-foot-8 and 165 pounds and finally made Country Day’s varsity, but rarely played on a team led by then-star shooting guard Alex Legion.
“Physically, he just couldn’t compete,” Keener said of Benson.
But Benson had a strong work ethic. After his junior season, he focused on lifting weights after his mother enrolled him in a strength program with a professional trainer.
By the start of his senior season, he’d grown two more inches to 6-foot-10 and bulked up to 190 pounds, Keener said.
Still, Benson was victimized by opposing players who attacked his wiry frame and knocked him away with contact, Keener said. He also struggled to run up and down the court at times because of stamina issues.
“He always had pretty good skills,” Keener said. “He could dribble the ball and shoot it fairly well. He just needed his body to catch up physically with his skill set.”
Benson also didn’t talk much in high school. Keener said his only conversations with Benson were about what he could do to play more — and even those were rare.
“You’d almost think he was a complete introvert,” Keener said. “He was not gregarious.”
Benson’s final season at Country Day, he was a starter to open the season, but was replaced in the starting lineup after Charles and Philip Tabet — twin brothers, who went on to play at South Alabama — became eligible second semester.
Benson began coming off the bench, which caused his averages of 8 points and 8 rebounds to decline. By the end of the season, he averaged just 4 points and 6 boards.
“That really helped us, because we knew we wanted him,” Kampe said.
Despite his lackluster statistics, Benson garnered scholarship offers from Fairfield, High Point and Howard because of his physical potential and him being just 17 years old at the time.
Kampe also had interest in Benson, who he discovered while watching the Tabet twins. But before offering a scholarship to Benson, Kampe asked Keener for his opinion.
“I truly think his best basketball is ahead of him,” Keener recalled telling Kampe. “Redshirting him would be the best thing in the world. It’d put him back with kids his same age.”
Benson initially planned to attend Fairfield, but after its coaching staff departed, he signed with Oakland in 2006. After Benson’s difficult freshman year in which he redshirted, he started a majority of games the next season, but struggled defensively while averaging 5.2 points and 3.5 rebounds.
“We were mad at him,” Kampe said.
In June 2008, Larry Wright transferred to Oakland from St. John’s, but didn’t think much when he saw Benson’s name on the roster. The guard had played against Benson several times in high school, but hardly remembered him.
“He wasn’t like a big factor or anything,” Wright said.
But when Wright stopped by his first Oakland summer pickup game and saw Benson dunk emphatically over another player, he was stunned.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Wright said. “The way he’s blossomed, it’s just amazing to see how far he’s come. It’s really astonishing. He’s become a great player.”
With Benson still struggling defensively as a sophomore, Kampe changed his philosophy: He had his guards start pressuring the ball and let Benson defend the basket.
“When we made that decision, he started to blossom, because I wasn’t yelling at him all the time because he couldn’t go out and guard on the perimeter,” Kampe said.
Benson went on to average 14.3 points and 7.8 rebounds as a sophomore and has since averaged a double-double, despite being the focus of teams in his conference, The Summit League. This season, he was the league’s Player of the Year for a second straight time, as well as the Defensive Player of the Year.
“In our league, they foul the crap out of him every time he touches the ball because they’re not as big as he is,” Kampe said. “They push and shove him.”
Beyond basketball, Benson is now more outgoing. He speaks more confidently, and after graduating from high school without any tattoos, his arms are covered with them, including one inscribed, “Killa Instinct.”
“We get a kick out of that,” Keener said of Benson’s tattoos. “He wasn’t your typical city kid or a street kid or anything like that. He was very much a suburban kid and an only child whose mother was a college professor. He had kind of that persona of being a little bit soft.”
Chad Ford, an NBA Draft analyst for ESPN.com, said Benson still has that reputation and considers him a borderline first-round pick.
“He’s also got to show a willingness to play defense,” Ford said.
And while Benson still has questions to answer, Keener marvels at his transformation both on and off the court.
“He’s grown up,” Keener said. “He’s a young man now. He used to be a great big body, but was still pretty much a little boy.”
And now Benson’s starting to throw his weight around.