WASHINGTON, D.C. – When Barret Benson arrived at Northwestern, he soon realized his playing time could be blocked by sophomore Dererk Pardon, a 6-foot-8 center from Cleveland.
“Dererk has taken me under his wings. When I got on campus we were competing against each other,” said Benson, the former Hinsdale South standout.
Benson played just 15 minutes in his first five college games and did not even play in two of the first seven contests for the Wildcats.
Then Pardon injured his right hand and Benson was thrust into the starting lineup.
Benson started eight games in a row. His last start came against Michigan State on Dec. 30 when he played 12 minutes and missed his only shot from the field.
In his first start against DePaul on Dec. 3, Benson played a season-high 20 minutes.
Benson scored a season-high eight points off the bench at Purdue on Feb. 1. He’s averaged 8.1 minutes and 2.0 points per contest in 30 games, eight of them starts.
“It has been a great year of learning,” Benson said while sitting in the Northwestern locker room during the Big Ten Conference tournament at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., this past weekend. “Playing behind a guy like Dererk, he was out for a while with a broken hand [and] that was just valuable time to play high minutes and learn to play at this level.”
Benson returned to his reserve role once Pardon was healthy.
“I am always watching the game and in my head I am ready,” Benson said. “I know at any time my name can be called. You get more comfortable being out there with your teammates.”
The Wildcats upset No. 3-seeded Maryland, ranked No. 25 in the nation at the time, in the Big Ten quarterfinals March 10 as Benson played a few minutes off the bench.
“It is huge. It was a home game for them,” Benson said after the Wildcats overcame a sizable second-half deficit in the win against Maryland. “It is one of those environments where you have to bond together. We started getting stops.”
Northwestern lost 76-48 against Wisconsin in the semifinals March 11. It was the first trip to the conference semifinals for the Wildcats.
Benson had a dunk with 3:13 left in that game and also had two rebounds in eight minutes off the bench.
The Wildcats are 23-11 and set a school record for wins.
And the season is not over yet. The Wildcats earned their first-ever NCAA tournament berth March 12. No. 8 seed Northwestern faces No. 9 Vanderbilt at 3:30 p.m. March 16 in Salt Lake City. The game will be broadcast on CBS.
“It is uncharted territory for sure,” Benson said. “It is really exciting.”
“They’ve been a great group to coach,” NU coach Chris Collins said. “I’m excited to continue the journey.”
Benson also plans on working on his game over the summer as he prepares to continue his Division I basketball trek.
“I want to keep getting better. I need to guard quicker guys,” he said. “That is definitely something I want to get better at. That and my jump shot.”