NEW YORK — Chris Beard only needed to see Avery Benson play once before offering him a scholarship.
It was back when Beard was still the head coach at Arkansas-Little Rock, and it wasn’t because Benson had 30 in a game, or because he threw down a massive dunk, or because he hit a step-back three that only a future Big 12 player would hit.
“He went for a loose ball,” Beard said, “and lost about three teeth. He wouldn’t take himself out of the game. They cleaned the blood up, and I turned to Wes Flanigan and said, ‘offer that kid a scholarship.'”
I bring this up because Benson was one of the best players on the floor for Beard as his unranked Texas Tech team upset No. 1 Louisville, 70-57, in the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday night. He finished the evening with 10 points and four boards to go along with a pair of spectacular blocks. He helped keep Louisville’s All-American forward Jordan Nwora in check; one of the aforementioned blocks came in the first half as Nwora went up to try and throw down a dunk. The 6-foot-4 Benson met him at the rim. Late in the second half, with Texas Tech nursing a ten point lead and two minutes left on the clock, he made a lunging attempt to jump a passing lane, forcing a turnover as he ended up in the lap of some poor soul on press row.
“Coach Beard’s hired to win ball-games. That’s what I gotta do to help him,” Benson said.
As assistant coach Brian Burg put it, “he truly epitomizes what Texas Tech is about.”
And from an outsider’s perspective, you’d think it’s easy to interpret what this means.
This is a program that prides themselves on being the underdog, on playing with a chip on their shoulder, on being the outsider that crashes the cool kid’s party. They’re the redneck outfit from Lubbock, Texas, that toughed their way to the national title game last season, and while that may not be the entire truth — Texas Tech’s resurgence the last two years came when they had multiple pros and talented upperclassmen being coach by one of the very best in the business — the second that program believes otherwise they lose their essence.
Of course the scrappy walk-on from Nowhere, Arkansas, that looks like an extra from Hell Or High Water fits in that culture.
“Avery’s a leader,” Chris Clarke, a grad transfer from Virginia Tech and arguably the best player on Texas Tech’s roster, said. “I didn’t really know too much about [Texas Tech] before I got here, but when I did they told me Avery was the toughest player. I’ve been expecting that since Day 1.”
But there is another way to interpret the point that Burg is trying to make.
Beard values culture and work ethic. He wants guys that play with a chip on their shoulder, definitely, but the trait that defines his teams is winning. He wants his program built on the ideal that winning matters above all else, that sacrificing for the betterment of the team is the most important part of being on a team, that everyone’s role in this fight is as important and valuable as the next’s.
“Make sure everybody from our head manager to our f—ing best player is just like that,” Clarke said, driving the point home by dapping up the head manager, who happened to be walking by, as he said it.
More to the point, the term “walk-on” is, as Benson put it, “is not in our dictionary of words.”
“I respect you saying he’s a walk-on,” Burg told me, slightly annoyed, “but he’s a player.”
Benson “epitomizes what Texas Tech is about” because he does his job as well as he possibly can and as hard as he possibly can. He sets the tone and the rest of the roster follows. As long as everyone does that, “we have everything here that we need to be successful,” Beard said.
That is what Texas Tech is all about.
Benson embodies this, and Beard knew it from the first time he watched him play.
“He’s one of my all-them favorite players. I know you’re not supposed to have favorites as a coach, but c’mon man,” he said. “Avery had all sorts of offers to play around the country, but when it all settled, he wanted to play in our culture and our program, and I was proud. It was one of the best phone calls that I got.”
Part of the reason for that is Benson had actual scholarship offers, just not from Texas Tech.
In Lubbock, he would be a walk-on. A preferred walk-on, a recruited walk-on, a walk-on that didn’t need to try out.
But a walk-on nonetheless.
“I work for a road construction company,” Benson said with a laugh after the game. Since he’s not on scholarship, he and his family have to pay his tuition. Part of the way he does that is by working a part-time job in Lubbock in the offseason. “I’m the ‘hey’ guy,” he said, as in, whenever they need something done – be it making a sign, rebuilding a trailer, whatever – they would yell, ‘Hey Avery!’
Here’s another anecdote to put this into context: Benson redshirted his freshman season, the 2017-18 season. He was allowed to travel with the team, but he wasn’t allowed to sit on the bench, not during the NCAA tournament. The Red Raiders reached the Elite Eight that year. At the regional semifinals in Boston, Benson sat in the family and friends section, wearing his trademark cowboy hat and cowboy boots directly across from the bench and directly behind where I was sitting on press row. Since he only had a ticket, he was not allowed on the floor with the team after a Sweet 16 win over Purdue.
So what did the team do?
They came to him, running into the stands to celebrate the win with the one member of their team that couldn’t be with them.
“Avery came [into my office] Tuesday, the day after the national championship game,” Beard said in the bowels of the Garden Tuesday night, “and I asked Avery if he wants to talk about [transferring], and he said, ‘No, coach. I’m staying the course. I’m not going anywhere.’ I told the coaches that day that this is one of the biggest things that will happen to us. We’ll recruit four and five star guys that will get all the ink, but what just happened with Avery Benson is big.”
“Our culture is everything. Our culture is what got us to the Final Four and won the Big 12. Players come and go, coaches come and go, but if culture stays the same, there’s a way to keep winning. The Patriots wide receivers change from time to time. Alabama gets a new quarterback, but they keep winning. We got a long way to go at Texas Tech basketball, but we like to think our culture is real.
“And having guys like Avery means the world to us.”
For a program that plays five freshmen, that has just three upperclassmen on the roster (two of whom are grad transfers) and that only returned three guys, including Benson, from last year’s national title team, having a guy that leads by example and sets the standard for all the new faces coming in matters more than you realize.
Beard understood that.
It’s part of what makes Benson one of his favorites.
“One thing I’ll always do is play my butt off for him,” Benson said. “That’s what he’ll do for me. He would take a bullet for me. That connection that me and him have. I will love him ’til the day I die.”