CARBONDALE — Nobody ever has to tell Barret Benson to sprint.
The 6-foot-10, 240-pound graduate transfer from Northwestern University cut hard to screen for senior guard Aaron Cook at a practice earlier this month, moved to the free-throw line, flashed his hands, and then sprinted toward the basket. After Cook lobbed it up, Benson snatched it out of the air with two hands, turned to his right, and finished the layup without a defender off the glass and down. Benson may not give SIU's men's basketball team an automatic 13 and 6 every night like his predecessor, former all-conference center Kavion Pippen, but the former four-star recruit from Hinsdale South High School brings a 3-point threat the Salukis haven't had from a big, energy, size and leadership.
"He definitely works hard at his game," junior forward Brendon Gooch said. "He can shoot it. He can post it. He's physical on defense, so, definitely not like the guys we've had in the past."
A career 50% shooter in three years with the Wildcats, Benson helped Northwestern to the 2017 NCAA tournament and competed against some of the best centers in the country. He started 14 of 96 games between 2016-19 and has 218 career rebounds, 47 career blocks, and motivation to make something of his final season. Backing up forward Derek Pardon last season, Benson played in all 32 games for the 13-19 squad, but averaged less than 10 minutes a game.
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"That's why he wants to be here," said new SIU coach Bryan Mullins. "I think that's what he's looking forward to in his last year. That's what he's working toward every single day in the gym, at 6 a.m., by himself. He's got an extremely high level of work capacity. His motivation is really, really high."
A mobile 5, Benson is what the Salukis lacked last season, someone who could guard a center on the perimeter. He will have to rebound better than he did against Division II Minnesota State, when he grabbed three boards in just over 17 minutes, but could also pull out opposing centers farther than they want to go when he has the ball. Benson is a career 2 of 8 from the 3-point line, and has worked as hard as anybody else on the SIU roster shooting from the new arc of 22 feet, 1 3/4 inches.
"I'm confident in it," Benson said. "I've been working on it a lot. I've gotta continue to build on it, but if I'm open, I'll be ready to take it."
One of 10 newcomers on this year's roster (sophomore guard Ben Harvey will sit out after coming over from Eastern Illinois), Benson has tried to teach as he's learned Mullins' system. After playing two veteran seniors the last two years at the 5 (Pippen started 63 of 65 games in his two years here, and forward Thik Bol played in 62 games), the Salukis now have five newcomers and Gooch, a 6-5, 205-pound forward who played in 16 games last season. Redshirt freshman forward Sekou Dembele is one of the team's best pure athletes, but is yet to play in his first Division I game and has been out for weeks with a stress fracture in his leg.
Junior Will Keller is a walk-on from John A. Logan College, junior center Stevan Jeremic just joined the team in August, and freshman forward Marcus Domask is still getting used to the speed of the college game. Domask could be one of the most talented bigs SIU has. The Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association player of the year in that state last season had a double-double in the Salukis' exhibition game, scoring 17 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in just over 32 minutes. The 6-6, 215-pound Waupun, Wisconsin native added two assists, a steal and a block. Jeremic, who stands 6-11, averaged 7.5 points and 6.1 rebounds per game last season at Utah State University Eastern and helped Odessa (Texas) College to the NJCAA tournament in 2018.
All three listen when Benson talks.
"Tell the truth to each other," Benson said. "You didn't do something, you didn't do it. That's why we explain what you need to do and why you need to do it. It's nothing personal, we're just trying to get better."
On Twitter: @THefferman