CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — In August 2013, Bennett Koch was a true freshman who tipped the scale at 200 pounds on a good day.
In November of 2014, Koch had never played a college basketball game and his role for the Northern Iowa men’s basketball team wasn’t clear.
In December of 2014, the 6-foot-9, 232-pound Koch has become a player the Panthers can count on as a redshirt freshman.
Bulking up during the past year and a half has been critical, but finding his way and gaining confidence during the past month and a half has been even more significant.
“Early in the year, like a lot of young guys, really not sure what his role is going to be, not sure where he’s going to fit in. As he’s played more, his confidence has changed,” head coach Ben Jacobson said. “For the group that we have, his size and length is an important part of our team getting better.”
Through the first four games, Koch averaged 1.5 mostly meaningless minutes. During the past seven contests, he’s averaging close to seven minutes, including an 11-point outburst against George Mason and an 11-minute outing last week at the Big Four Classic.
In that game against the Hawkeyes, the Panthers needed size against Iowa’s big front line whenever senior Seth Tuttle was on the bench. Koch responded by shutting down 7-foot-1 Adam Woodbury and ultimately helping the UNI defense to a big second half.
“If you look back to the first four games, Klint [Carlson] had that spot. The matchups were better, and Klint was a little bit ahead of him at that time,” Jacobson said. “I give Bennett a lot of credit for continuing to do everything the same because he had to wait his turn. He didn’t let that initial two or three weeks impact his confidence to the point where he didn’t practice well.”
Part of the learning curve was figuring out what college basketball was all about.
Depth has afforded the Panthers time to let some guys get their legs under them. Koch has clearly taken advantage as he takes on more responsibility and finds his place in the lineup.
“Right now, I think I’m more of a ‘give Tut a breather’ kind of player, but I’m happy with the minutes I’m getting and trying to play as hard as I can,” he said. “I’m happy that I’m finally playing.”
It all comes after a redshirt season that was used to add some muscle, according to Koch, and add some confidence, according to Jacobson.
— Ben Jacobson
While it’s hard to know what would’ve happened if Koch was on the court a year ago, the season of practices seems to have been an important stepping stone to where he is today.
“He wasn’t as sure of himself as he needed to be for us to play him or put him in game situations,” Jacobson said of Koch as a true freshman. “He’s learning as much about his own abilities as he is about the opposition’s offense and defense and our offense and defense and how to approach all of those things. He’s learning just as much about what he’s capable of.”
Coaches are also learning what he’s capable of, as evidenced by the steady increase in minutes. Koch’s 2.7 points and 0.6 rebounds per game won’t jump off the page, but that’s not where he’s being asked to contribute for a team full of upperclassmen, and it’s not why he gets asked to go check in.
“What’s helped me, in terms of playing him more, is just how hard he’s played defensively,” Jacobson said. “Knowing how he’s going to go in and play that hard defensively and have an impact at that end of the floor.”
And finally, because of the last name, there are the comparisons to the Panthers who came before him, brothers Adam and Jake, who have plenty of mentions in UNI’s all-time records book.
Bennett won’t face the basket as much as Adam and he certainly won’t fire up 383 3-pointers in his career like Jake. He’s his own player, and everyone is just beginning to see what that is.
“I’m just trying to be myself out there and take a little bit of the good out of both my brothers. I’ve watched them since I was a little kid, so I’ve learned a lot,” said Koch. “In no way am I mad that they came here, or jealous or feel negatively about that at all. I’ve only learned from them. It’s definitely a good thing.”