- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 16, 2011

ROCHESTER, MICH. (AP) - Keith Benson averaged about seven points per game as a high school senior, then redshirted his freshman season at a little-known college in suburban Detroit.

Not exactly the quickest path to stardom.

This week, however, Benson has a chance to become one of the most talked-about players in college basketball. Now a senior and a legitimate NBA prospect, the 6-foot-11 center will try to lead 13th-seeded Oakland to an NCAA tournament upset against fourth-seeded Texas.

“There aren’t a lot of players in the country like Keith, and we’ve been blessed to have him,” Oakland coach Greg Kampe said. “He’s really helped Oakland become a program that’s admired by people.”

When a team like Oakland comes out of nowhere to challenge the nation’s elite, there always seems to be a story like Benson’s _ someone under the radar out of high school who matured into a major contributor. Benson has grown about 3 inches in college and now weighs 230 pounds. After sitting out his first season with the Golden Grizzlies, he averaged only 5.2 points per game as a redshirt freshman.

The following season, something clicked. In a game against Michigan in December 2008, Benson scored 23 points on 9-of-11 shooting. Oakland lost, but Benson realized he could be one of the Summit League’s top players.

“That’s when I kind of saw it in myself, that I could do it against the Big Ten _ that I should be able to do everything I was doing then against the conference,” Benson said. “It kind of opened up people’s eyes, and everything kind of went up from there.”

Benson went on to average a double-double as a junior, and he’s doing the same this season, averaging 18 points and 10.1 rebounds while shooting 55 percent from the field. Oakland has dominated its league like perhaps no other team in the nation, posting 17-1 conference records each of the last two regular seasons and winning the league tournament both times.

The Golden Grizzlies lost 89-66 to Pittsburgh in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year, but Benson scored 28 points.

“Left-handed hook, right-handed hook, bank shot, free throws, jump shots, step-backs _ he can make every shot you want,” Kampe said. “He can run, and you’re going to have to run with him. … He can do a lot of things. He’s a very, very talented player.”

Benson has even made nine 3-pointers this season, although Oakland has plenty of others who can do that. Travis Bader is shooting 46 percent from long distance, and Reggie Hamilton is at 38 percent.

Hamilton averages 17.4 points, part of a team that has scored at least 100 seven times this season.

“Just having that presence down there opens up a lot,” he said. “I credit a lot of our perimeter play to Keith Benson.”

The Golden Grizzlies have been tested on their way to the NCAA tournament. They won at Tennessee in December, and their schedule included losses to West Virginia, Purdue, Illinois, Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State.

The closest Oakland came to another impressive upset was the 77-76 loss to the Spartans.

“This is a fun year,” Benson said. “We have really good 3-point shooters, so me inside plus them makes it hard to double and stuff.”

Expect Benson to get a lot of attention from the Longhorns. And Kampe expects his big man to receive plenty of attention on draft day, perhaps as early as the first round.

Benson isn’t sure of his status _ and he’s looking at this week as an opportunity. The Golden Grizzlies have a chance to turn heads by knocking out Texas, and their center is eager to show what he can do on the big stage.

“I think this is a big opportunity to improve my stock,” Benson said. “I think I should be higher than where they have me going now, so it’s a good chance to prove it to everybody.”

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