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‘Happy to be home’: Benson thrilled to lead NCAA tourney-eligible GCU

GCU senior guard Casey Benson drives on a teammate at the first practice of the season, Friday, September 29, 2017, Phoenix. (Photo by Jamie Nish/ Cronkite News)

PHOENIX — Many college basketball players don’t have the opportunity to play close to home or with a family member on the coaching staff.

Casey Benson is one of the lucky ones.

After graduating from the University of Oregon a year early, Benson had a season of eligibility left. With several options on the table, he decided to attend Grand Canyon University, a mere 16 miles away from his hometown compared to the 1,300-mile trip from Tempe to Eugene.

Why did he choose to attend GCU, which will NCAA Tournament eligible for the first time and opens its season Friday at home against Florida A&M?

“My brother’s here but coach (Dan) Majerle is obviously a tremendous coach,” Benson said. “Coach Majerle’s played at the highest level, he’s coached at the highest level and the system he has for us, we play with freedom, so that was obviously extremely intriguing to play for him.

“And obviously, GCU is a Christian university. My faith is No. 1 in my life and so that was extremely important for me, and the fan support they have is second to none. Playing in front of a sold-out crowd every night, in front of the Havocs, you can’t really ask for much more.”

Benson’s older brother, T.J., is an assistant coach on the team and perhaps the biggest reason he joined the Antelopes. He’s been on the staff for five years and knows “it played a big part” in his brother returning. So did the people he left behind.

“For him to come back home, having our family be here, it’s been tough for grandparents. We have a younger sister that hasn’t had the opportunity to go up there and see him play as much as she would like,” T.J. said. “My dad got a chance to travel a lot and go to a lot of games but just having everyone back here at home, it wasn’t just me but I know that having everyone, the family, your friends, it’s something that played a huge part in it.”

On the court, their bond has been just as important.

It’s been an “easy transition,” T.J. said, being a coach and Casey’s older brother, as the two worked out together during their offseason. Casey has always looked up to T.J., calling him an idol, and said they are tight-knit pair.

“He’s like my best friend,” Casey said. “We’re really really close. I grew up watching him when I was yay-high, traveling to his games. I was his biggest fan and obviously he got done playing and he’s tried to watch as many games as he possibly could of mine. So it’s fun.

“He’s obviously really close with all the guys. He’s a younger guy so he’s able to relate to us. He’s got great relationships with everybody so it’s fun.”

Casey isn’t here just to hang out with his brother, of course. He’s here to help lead this team into new waters. The ‘Lopes are eligible for the NCAA Tournament for the first time and Majerle said the team is excited for the chance. He also said that Casey brings a lot to the table coming from one of the best teams in the nation.

“He’s filling the big shoes of DeWayne Russell, who was a fantastic player for us,” Majerle said. “… Casey’s a local guy who’s going to come in and going to make everyone around him a lot better. He’s a different player, DeWayne.

“So we’re excited to have him. He’s going to be a good addition for us. He’s played in big games … It’s big for him to step in as a point guard to lead our team and to have that kind of experience.”

His experience in the NCAA Tournament and playing Division I basketball makes Benson a leader not only on the court but off, and anyone watching him play can see he is ultra-competitive. It’s the role he said he expected to have as one of the seniors on this team, and he wants “to bring that fire, bring that edge and compete” with his teammates.

That competitive drive is something he has possessed for years.

“Everything he does, he’s competing,” T.J. said. “I think that’s what drives him, I think that makes him who he is and really, I think that’s why he’s had the success that he’s had. He’s so hard on himself. He doesn’t like losing in any facet of life but especially on the basketball court, evidenced by him winning the three state championships and having the success he had at Oregon.”

When asked if he’ll have a chip on his shoulder due to not receiving as much playing time as he hoped in his final season at Oregon, he said he is looking to enjoy what could potentially be his final dance with basketball.

“I wanted to have fun with my last year and I knew coming back here, playing for coach Majerle, playing with these guys, it was going to be fun,” Benson said. “I’m grateful for my time in Oregon. It was a great three years, obviously going to the Final Four, won some Pac-12 championships, but I’m excited for this new chapter.

“Couldn’t be more happy to be home, couldn’t be more happy to be at GCU and represent this university, represent Arizona and make some noise.”

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