January 24, 2006
RALEIGH -- Cameron Bennerman has spent much of his N.C. State career showing flashes of brilliance and trying to stay out of coach Herb Sendek's doghouse.
He has been headstrong enough to continue to work hard and remain determined even when things haven't gone his way. But up until recently, he also had been headstrong enough to constantly remain in danger of another quick trip back to the kennel.
Remember, when State opened this season with a lopsided win over Stetson, Bennerman was watching in street clothes, benched for what Sendek termed a failure to follow team rules. And remember, Bennerman's post-game explanation was that he didn't know what he'd done wrong, and that he was surprised to be sitting. That's probably not the kind of contrition the coach was looking for.
Last year, Bennerman mysteriously disappeared from the rotation from time to time, for various and sundry reasons. Sometimes, he didn't play defense hard enough to suit Sendek. Sometimes, he got a little too trigger-happy with ill-advised shots. Sometimes, he was a little too outspoken for his own good. Even when he missed a stretch with injuries, he implied that he wasn't as hurt as people were being led to believe, and that couldn't have set well with some at State, either.
At the midway point of the 2005-06 season, though, Bennerman's career seemed to be headed toward a happy ending.
The numbers alone verified that, including an average of 12.6 points through 18 games, plus a career-high 26 against Wake Forest on Jan. 21. At that point, he had scored in double figures in every game since moving into the starting lineup on Dec. 10 against Appalachian State, and he was NCSU's leading scorer (16.1) through six ACC games.
But this is about much more than Bennerman's stats.
Bennerman clearly has made the effort to buy into what Sendek wants. He clearly has made the effort to pick up his defensive intensity. He seems to understand the importance of senior leadership and practicing hard every day. He seems at peace with the fact that State will spread the wealth around offensively and somebody different may step up from game to game, without losing any of that unabashed confidence that he can go on a scoring spree at any moment. He still may goof up from time to time and get frustrated or get beaten or take a terrible shot, but the commitment is definitely there.
He is still brutally honest with his feelings and his comments at times, and that got him into trouble with many State fans after the loss at North Carolina on Jan. 7, when he admitted that there came a point late in the game when he knew State wouldn't rally. But those who heard the comments directly understood the context in which he said them.
As the season has progressed, it has become more and more apparent that Bennerman's bluntness and honesty are not just refreshing for the media. They are a vital part of his team's chemistry and a necessary complement to the personalities of some of his more guarded teammates. Sometimes, Bennerman says what others are thinking.
Sendek seems to understand that, and perhaps the coach has come part of the way toward accepting some things as Cam being Cam. The fact is, Bennerman is proving that the good far outweighs the questionable, even when he doesn't act like Sendek's ideal player.
One quote from Bennerman from a few weeks ago summed up how he has tried to approach this season.
"I have three months left in my senior season, and I want to do whatever it takes to have a great season," he said. "I don't have that many games left in my career, and I want to make every one of them count. Three months from now, I want to have built on what I've done, and I want the team to have built on what we've done.
"This is a key time for us, because we're moving up the polls, where in the past we've been ready to fall about now. I think we have the team and the leadership, so that isn't going to happen again. We know why we're winning and why we're successful. We've just got to continue to take it step by step, and day by day."
Bennerman's play, and his ability to buy in and earn Sendek's trust and confidence, clearly will have a huge impact on the rest of this season. That hasn't always been a good thing for the Wolfpack, but this year this drama has taken a much more positive turn.
OTHER VETERANS FULL OF SURPRISES
This season hasn't played out the way many envisioned in terms of State's personnel.
Fifth-year forward Ilian Evtimov looked to be State's most reliable player coming into the season, yet he has struggled and even disappeared at times, and his confidence still seemed shaky in late January. Veteran guards Engin Atsur and Tony Bethel have been prone to slip into the shadows in some big games instead of stepping up, too.
Meanwhile, Bennerman and sophomore center Cedric Simmons fall into the category of guys who have stepped up and proven they can be counted on, perhaps even more than Sendek originally planned. Everyone knew of Simmons' athleticism and defensive skills, but he has become a far better offensive low-post threat than anyone could have expected at this point. Bennerman has gone a long way toward beating his rap for inconsistency.
Throw all of that together, and it gives Sendek the opportunity to tweak the offense. The coach often has complained that his offense is more expansive than the "Princeton-style" label suggests, but only now is he adding elements specifically to play to Simmons' and Bennerman's biggest strengths. Make no mistake, Evtimov and Atsur benefit more from a true Princeton-style offense than Simmons and Bennerman ever would.
A more wide-open offense helps State in many ways. The Wolfpack is starting to run more and get more easy baskets. With the ball in the hands of its most athletic players, State is getting to the foul line more. The Pack ultimately may become less predictable in late-game situations, when it has faltered in its losses. And all of this opens up more possibilities for the likes of Bethel, forward Andrew Brackman and others. It may even help take some of the pressure off Evtimov and get him going again.
None of this was to be taken for granted. It wouldn't have shocked anybody back in the fall to see Bennerman out of sorts and back in the doghouse by now. Or at least everyone understood that the possibility existed. Instead, it has worked out well -- for Bennerman, for Sendek, and for the team.