Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Q&A: Las Cruces High head basketball coach, and former NMSU Aggie, William Benjamin

(William Benjamin, right, celebrates following Las Cruces High's 2013 State Boys Basketball Championship. LCHS begins District 3-5A play tonight against Alamogordo/Photo by Adria Malcolm)

In the local sports community, William Benjamin’s made quite the impact.

From Los Angeles, Calif., Benjamin played four years at New Mexico State University, and was a key member of the 1992 Aggie team that advanced to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.

And, while Benjamin would play professionally overseas following his college career, he would eventually return to southern New Mexico and join the Las Cruces High School boys basketball program. Five years ago he became head coach of the Bulldawgs, and last season he led the program to its first State Championship since 1976.

With 2014 District 3-5A play ready to tip off tonight, we caught up with Benjamin during a recent Bulldawgs practice at the school gym to talk about his past, present and future pertaining to basketball.

Sun-News: You win the State Championship last year. Then you lose the nucleus of your team. How close do you think the 2014 Bulldawgs are at competing for a district championship?
William Benjamin: “We’re as close as anybody. We’ll compete. I think we can compete with anybody in our district. I’ll leave it at that.”

SN: What was it like getting that burden off Las Cruces High’s back and winning the school’s first State Championship since 1976?
WB: “I don’t know over the past 15 years that I’ve been here were we ever favored to win a State Championship. Things kind of fell in line. We weren’t favored when we won it last year, there was nobody thinking about us. It just happened that way. I don’t know if anything was on anybody’s back, it’s just that we surprised a lot of people.”

SN: You’ve said this year the district is toughest in state. Talk about that.
WB: “Look at the parity. Look at the teams in the district, the records that they have....Everybody’s solid and they have very good coaches.”

SN: Were you surprised at all by early-season wins over Hobbs and Clovis?
WB: “I’m not surprised....That’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re playing at home and you play good....These kids....They put a tremendous amount of time in the gym....Last year we started out 0-4. This year we started off the same way, playing the same teams....It’s how we play in district, that’s what matters. And we’re getting better. I think we’ve gotten better throughout.”

SN: You went to New Mexico State - a four-year player at the school. Then played overseas. Why did you come back to Las Cruces and what’s kept you here?
WB: “Because of that feeling you get as a young kid, when you leave home for the first time, the community kind of takes you in and they look out for you. I’m the first one in my family to graduate from college. It was easier for me to come out here, to graduate. It was easy to find a job. Start a family. Things of that nature. Las Cruces is where everything positive has happened in my life....It’s been a win-win in everything.”

SN: Kind of along the same lines, you coached Bulldawgs junior-varsity for 12 years. Again, what kept you at the LCHS program for that long?
WB: “I liked Las Cruces. Coach (Mike) Smith was the first one who gave me an opportunity as a JV coach. When it came time for me to become a head coach, I was fortunate enough for Las Cruces High School to hire me.”

SN: Biggest accomplishment in basketball: Playing in an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 or winning a State Championship as head coach?
WB: “Greatest basketball accomplishment is playing for four years at New Mexico State and not transferring, not quitting. Greatest accomplishment is playing in a winning program and surviving practices against Randy Brown and Reggie Jordan (laughs)....You’re talking about two NBA players, having to go up against them every day in practice. I saw five different guards leave, just because those guys were ruthless.”

SN: You were known as a defensive player in college, although you hit some big shots during your career as well. Where do those shots rank in terms of top moments?
WB: “It’s always nice to hit big shots. But just playing in the Pan Am Center, in front of over 10,000 every home game. No one shot is bigger than that. To have the full college experience of playing at a Top-25 program. Playing in front of a packed house....We always had a saying growing up, you don’t want to play at a school where you can hear the shoes squeaking. That means no one’s there watching you play. And it wasn’t like that. That’s bigger than any one shot.”

SN: The Aggies have won basketball games and have had success. So why do you think the crowds aren’t what they were compared to when you played?
WB: “Different eras.. I think the college students were more involved back then. Back then the college students had that whole bottom section... Now the college kids are kind of behind the basket. They were courtside really showing school pride and making it tough on opponents. It was more Cameron Crazy so-to speak. It was nuts.”

SN: Have you coached any players that remind you of yourself?
WB: “Joseph Garza....I was smart, I played hard....Garza reminded me of me, in that aspect. Made plays when they needed to be made, whether it was a pass to the right guy at the right time, or make a shot. I was a point guard, handled the ball, never turned it over, made the right decisions, made the free throws. When I had Garza as a freshman, Garza’s not quick, he’s not fast. But at the same time he’s not slow. He’s just smart and efficient. Someone you want to coach, because you know he’s going to do everything right.”

SN: How much of an influence did Neil McCarthy have on your coaching career past and present?
WB: “I talk to him now. We run the matchup-zone defense. If I want to talk to him about....Different parts of it, or if I’m having problems with certain areas of it, I can pick his brain. One thing that we had at New Mexico State was, we had good teams. When you’re talking about teams, you’re talking about the first man to the 12th guy....I know what it’s like to be a valuable piece to the puzzle. And we try incorporate that here. Let the kids know, you’re coming off the bench, you have a lot of value. Just like that guy who’s starting....That’s what I learned from Neil.”

SN: Does coaching in the college game remain a professional goal for you at some point?
WB: “It’s just basketball, it’s X’s and O’s. We’re talking about young kids and working and developing. For us to win a State Championship last year without having one Division I player says a lot about the program. It says a lot about our kids’ development as far as getting better. So yeah, I would love to coach at the next level. I would love try it.”

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