GCU hoops: Casey Benson has a tough act to follow


Casey Benson is about to discover he’s got a tough act to follow when he returns to his Arizona roots.

The former basketball standout during his prep career at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe just committed to play out the final year of his college eligibility at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix.  If head coach Dan Majerle elects to work him into the point guard slot, the position he played at Corona, he will be stepping into the footprints of the guy who has held that position that last couple of years, DeWayne Russell.

If taken literally, Russell’s shoes aren’t that big to fill, considering his 5’10, 155-pound frame.  But figuratively, his level of play at GCU will be tough to match.

Benson comes home after three years playing guard for the Oregon Ducks, helping that program to reach the Final Four of the 2017 NCAA Tournament.  So Majerle has just picked up some valuable experience to insert into next year’s line-up.  Benson will be eligible to play right away because he has completed his college degree.

Majerle’s ability to attract Benson to the Antelopes’ program can be attributed to some degree to the fact that one of Majerle’s assistant coaches is Casey’s brother, TJ Benson.

But the Oregon transfer won’t be bringing the same highlight-reel magic the GCU fans were used to seeing with Russell.  At 6’3″, Benson has some size advantage over the diminutive Russell, but Russell did more with the size that God gave him than most people could.

There’s no way of knowing how Majerle intends to use Benson, whether as a starter or off the bench, but it’s safe to assume Majerle has plans to use a player with Benson’s experience and just one more season to play the game.  If he gets the starting job, the comparisons to Russell will be inevitable.

And that will make for a really tough act to follow, indeed.

Russell was also a local product who was named the state’s Player of the Year at Peoria High School and then played a season at Northern Arizona University before transferring to GCU.  His roots in the Phoenix area, combined with an intense high-flying, exciting style of play, made him a fan favorite at GCU.

Rick Pitino, the head coach for the Louisville Cardinals, admitted Russell had put up “the best guard performance” he had seen in at least 10 years after GCU came within nine points of upsetting the national power in a game at GCU in early December.  Pitino tried everything he could to hold the little guard in check, but Russell hit his shots from all over the floor, regardless of who was guarding him, and finished that game with a career-high 42 points, the second-most points ever scored against Louisville.

Keep in mind, that performance was against a tradition-rich team ranked No. 14 in the country at the time and went on to post a 25-win season in the rugged ACC.  Russell was leading a team still in its final year of transition from D-II to Division I.

Russell finished his final year with a 21.2 points-per-game scoring average in Western Athletic Conference play, and averaged 5.4 assists while playing just over 38 minutes a game for 28 games. Benson averaged  22 minutes over 20 games.

He was named to the 2017 All-WAC First Team and will graduate with the GCU Division I single-season scoring record.

His final tribute was his selection to participate in the 29th annual State Farm College Slam Dunk & 3-Point Championships following the close of the season.  It confirmed his recognition as one of the best three-point shooters in the country, completing 40 percent of his 3-point attempts last season.

Benson averaged just over 40 percent from behind the arc last season, so that part of the equation balances out.  But his five points a game won’t fill the scoring void that Russell leaves.  Although he started all 38 games during Oregon’s 2015-16 season, and the first four this season, he accepted the role as the Ducks’ primary sixth man during the team’s march to the Final Four.

And Benson will have incoming competition for the job.  Majerle scooped up Damari Milstead in his West Coast recruiting net and signed him during the fall signing period.  Milstead is from Hayward, Calif., where he played point for Moreau Catholic High School and led that program to a 100-21 record and two Northern California Championships during his four years there.

Milstead ran up 2,353 points to finish as the school’s career leading scorer.  He averaged 25.8 points during his senior campaign.

Russell led the ‘Lopes to back-to-back winning seasons his last two years with the program and finished the fourth and final year of D-I transition by helping GCU post a 22-9 record last season.

His successor will lead the GCU program into a new era as Majerle steps off onto the challenging path to D-I prominence.

But somehow, it just won’t be the same without DeWayne the Energizer Bunny on the floor.