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Towson junior and Fauquier High grad Jerrelle Benimon answers all questions

Wednesday, Mar. 6 | By Joe Rummel
Towson's Jerrelle Benimon, a Fauquier High graduate, is a finalist for the Mid-Major Player of the Year award. --Photo courtesy of Towson University
Most athletes say they’re chomping at the bit to make it to the next level, but how many literally have the breath to back it up.

The only thing that hasn’t changed about Towson University’s 6-foot-8 forward Jerrelle Benimon since leaving Fauquier High in 2009 is the Orbit gum he chews.

Some people have lucky socks, Benimon prefers his sweet mint. In a way, his jaw’s constant gnawing expresses his determination to achieve.

The former Fauquier Falcon has taken flight.

Soaring atop the NCAA, Jerrelle Benimon leads the nation in double-doubles with 20 and total rebounds 346.
Averaging 17.1 points per game and 11.2 rebounds, the Georgetown University transfer is considered the frontrunner for Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) Player of the Year.

He led the Tigers in field goal percentage, free throw shooting, assists, rebounds and blocks, and was the catalyst for the Tigers' remarkable turnaround.

The former Georgetown role player became a determined leader, helping Towson improve from last year’s abysmal 1-31 record to a 18-13 mark and second place in the CAA at 13-5. He scored 31 in a recent 85-81 win over George Mason and had 14 points and 13 rebounds in a season-ending win over Hofstra on March 2. (The Tigers are ineligible for the CAA tournament and NCAA postseason due to team academic issues.)

Benimon’s play led to his nomination for the Lou Henson National Player of the Year Award, which goes to a player in a mid-major conference.

The winner of the award will be recognized at the CollegeInsider.com awards banquet in Atlanta, home of the 2013 men’s NCAA Basketball Championship. The selection process relies on 33 percent of online fan votes. The polls can be found on Facebook or the award’s website.

I first saw Benimon play when he transferred from Taylor Middle School to Warrenton Middle in the eighth grade.

Until now, I hadn’t gotten the chance to ask my old classmate about his latest transfer and his college experience. We discussed his success, the media hype around his team and the overall possibility of achieving his dream, reaching the NBA.

Q: In high school you were the type of guy who would go to a friend’s house, and while everybody was playing video games, you’d be on the couch reading. You still reading these days?

A: Nah, I don’t really have the time to anymore with classes, practice and being on the road and stuff.

Q: But you’re still chewing the same gum? Do you buy Orbit by the box?

A: (laughs) Nah, my strength coach gives it to me before and throughout the games.

Q: My next question was going to be how do you pay for all that, but really, how do pay for things with no solid source of income because of practice and classes?

A: I’ve been on full scholarship since I’ve been in college. I’ve never had to pay for like books or meals ―so my parents don’t really mind giving me money for stuff ― because I’m going to school for free…so if I need something they usually just give it to me.

Q: As a D-1 student athlete, you’re a student first, but basketball is your job. How do you balance your course-load and court-work?

A: I think it’s kind of easier than other students, because you can basically tell a professor, “I need more time: blah, blah, blah. I’m busy with …” and usually you’ll get away with a lot of stuff…

They know you’re going to be busy on the road, so they’re pretty lenient with stuff like that; but, I’ve learned how to adjust when I need to get my work in.

Even at Georgetown, the professors are pretty lenient as long as you let them know what’s going on.

Q: And what exactly is going on before and after prime time? Take me through the routine traveling on the road.

A: Schools have a policy if it’s over four hours, then we’ll take a plane …If we don’t fly somewhere then we’ll take the bus. There’s not too much of a difference.

Most games we’re on the road, we stay at our hotel the night before… We’ll usually have stuff going on throughout the night, like we’ll have dinner and then watch film. Then I’ll come in and chill in my room most of the time.

Then we’ll go out to shoot around in the morning; we’ll eat and do stuff throughout the day, and then we’ll play. I like being on the road more than playing at home for some reason actually.

Q: You’ve gotten to re-live the NCAA recruitment process transferring to Towson. How was that different the second time around?

A: It was basically the same. But with transferring it was more restricting, I couldn’t contact any coaches face-to-face. I was only allowed to go to so many schools, and you could only go if it was previously approved and stuff.

Every school that recruited me, they reached out to me… I probably got 100 phone calls when everything was done. Different schools would tell me they were interested, like Xavier; I talked to Maryland for a little bit…and maybe every school in the CAA. Schools in South Carolina, schools in California and like schools everywhere ― I don’t even remember all the names anymore.

And the assistant that recruited me from Towson. He treated me like a big deal. He’d send me an e-mail 1,000 times a day. He’d call me all the time.

Q: Well, all those seconds on the phone have added up to some big minutes for you. What’s motivated you to play at such a high level?

A: Anything: game-time motivates me and just getting ready to play. Sitting out a whole year, finally getting the opportunity to play, it just motivates you. You know you have to do well. You have to be motivated to play.

I can never go days without playing basketball. So I figure I might as well go to the top of playing. It’s just fun for me. I might as well keep striving for the best that I can do, and hope it gets me to the NBA.

Q: You’re averaging a double-double just like back in your Fauquier days, but what’s it feel like to know you’re on the top of NCAA charts?

A: I really can’t say anything because numbers are just numbers, so it really doesn’t matter. Unless you’re averaging 100, 100 and 100, then you can always have better stats (laughs). I’m having a pretty good season stats-wise. I can do better though.

Q: The media feeds on these kinds of numbers. I know there was a large buzz around the Georgetown game, but just how big of a presence has the media had all season?

A: When you had a bad season like last year and you turn it around to be fighting to be number one in the CAA…People are starting to notice the team more and people in the media kind of have me at the front of what’s going on.

So the media has made it out to be a huge deal. We've had one of the biggest turnarounds in college.

Q: So just how many times have you been asked about the transfer?

A: The go-to questions are “Why the transfer?” “How’s the transition?” “Why are your numbers better?”

Q: Alright, let’s try and be a little different: What was the hardest part transferring from Georgetown and how did you justify leaving the Big East?

A: It was several reasons that added up. I loved Georgetown the school because a lot of my close friends go there. That was probably the toughest thing leaving Georgetown. Then obviously, if you play basketball and think you’re good enough, you want to be the go-to player.

If you want to transfer and you positively know that you can make a difference if you go, you go. I have the utmost respect for anybody that does it. But if you’re not positive your game will actually elevate going somewhere else then I don’t think it’s worth leaving a school like Georgetown because the academics are so good.

I knew about Coach (Pat) Skerry because he was a coach in the Big East. I’d heard of how good of a coach he was, how good of a recruiter he was and how they were putting so much effort into turning the program around with a new arena, new players, new everybody-and wiping the roster clean.

It ultimately came down to where I felt the most comfortable… Georgetown is only 6,000 kids so it’s the same people and things every day, but it was good. Although at Towson I like it because you see different people and there are so many more people that go to school there and stuff. It’s fun.

Q: What’s your response to these fan comments made by The Casual Hoya: “No chance he would be getting the same minutes and be putting up the same gaudy stats at Georgetown as he is at Towson. At the end of the day the CAA is the CAA, and … I don't think he'd have the same impact at a high major.”

Do you ever regret leaving when you lose those close games or think if you’d have waited you could have been the Hoya’s top dog?

A: I guess I’ll never know. I think I have my best numbers of the season against some of the better schools. I think I strive playing against the top schools. I really couldn’t say though. Against Georgetown I think I had the most points, rebounds and the most blocks. Obviously Georgetown is Georgetown. It’s probably one of the best college programs ever, but I don’t ever really regret anything. It’s whatever to me. I’m having a blast. I’m playing ball still and I’m having fun.

Q: So what’s different about the way you play at Towson and the way things worked at G-town?

A: At Georgetown you’re more constrained. There’s always stuff you have to do, like backdoor cuts and there’s a lot of continuity to it. It’s always the same thing going on.

If you’re in the Princeton system, it works. You can win with it, but it’s so robotic and you can obviously break off ― but I never got the opportunity ― and I guess that comes more with becoming a veteran and getting older, you know?

Now, I’m kind of back to the Fauquier way. I’ve got way more freedom. ... Coach Skerry basically finds mismatches, you know? If somebody’s too small, then I’ll beat them at post. If somebody’s big but they have fast feet, then I’ll be on the perimeter. I’ll get pick-and-pops, or I’ll get the ball in transition and get to the hole in that way. He finds the easiest way for me to operate.

Q: When you had NBA-bound talents on the roster like Greg Monroe did that ever intimidate you or hinder the way you play? What was it that never let you “break off” at Georgetown to 30-point nights, or games going 20 points and 20 rebounds like you did against Oregon State?

A: I don’t think I was intimidated. At that time I just knew it was their team and since it’s their team they deserve to have the ball. They honestly used to yell at me for not shooting. I guess it was more of me just being timid. I was shy about shooting shots I would always knock down in practice and throughout my career.

I don’t usually try to ever think about who is there to play. It is usually one goal on my mind, and that is to do what I have to do so we can win the game.

Q: And what does that mean for how you craft your game and play-style as a leader rather than a role-player? How has playing a Fauquier Georgetown and Towson developed you into the complete player you’ve become?

A: I have learned many things in each place I have been, and I think what makes a great basketball player is continuing to learn from anything and everything, as you get older.

I think being in that system with coach John Thompson III, it made me more conscious of things as a basketball player. Basketball has a lot to do with spacing. In the Princeton there’s so much more space, that way you can operate more freely. That helped develop my game a lot.

I really need to be able to score from anywhere on the court. That’s one thing I always work on, because you never know when you’ll need to score. I like being versatile.

Q: With the talk of you as frontrunner for the CAA Player of the Year, does that add any pressure, distractions or even motivation when you lace up on game day?

A: When you’re being productive, I guess there’s a lot of pressure on you; but there’s a lot of pressure on everybody on our team to win games. Every team I’ve ever been on, I’ve never really lost. At Fauquier, I won several championships. At Georgetown, we were Top 20 at one point every season.

Some people deal with the attention in different ways. Some people it’s good for, some people get in over their head with too much attention. It kind of matters about who they are as a person.

I’ve won conference Player of the Year a couple times in high school and stuff, I think.

I’ve gotten used to it, but it would be fun obviously. I think it’d also be good for the school to have someone win Player of the Year.

This year I think we should have won more games. I think we underachieved in some games because we were still coming together. Everybody’s still brand new with only one returning player, so a lot of the games we lost, we still weren’t quite a team yet.

In my opinion, we have the talent and capabilities to be the No. 1 team in the conference. We made some mistakes in some very close losses earlier.

Q: We know you want to get to the NBA, but have you talked to Coach Skerry about using that last year of eligibility to do it? Having seen teammates go through it before, what can you expect this offseason?

A: I really haven’t talked to him honestly about it. I’ll talk with him and one of the assistant coaches I’m really close with. We should have a really good team next year with everyone coming back and recruits coming in.

I’ll probably do some camps and all. I’ll probably go do some workouts with people. If you want to go to the next level, you have to go to camps, workouts and let people see you in a workout environment.

I’d love to play at the next level. That’s more of what I have molded my game to. But we’ll see and who knows?

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: NBA scoring is a lot different from college scoring. I’ve always been more of a NBA fan than a college fan anyway. The NBA is way more open. The court has a lot more space to operate and you can do a lot more.

Q: Sometimes you get knocked out of rhythm in games and it seems your heads out of it. What have you done to fix that mental part of your game?

A: The thing with me is that when I’m not playing the way I know I can play, I become extremely frustrated, which can throw me off my game even more. I have just been told to not become so frustrated and to move on the next play, which has helped me throughout the season.

Q: OK, one more before I let you go: You play like you have something to prove. What is it?

A: I don’t ever really think about proving anything. I think it’s mostly proving to myself that I know all the hard work I have put in is actually paying off.
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