The general feeling around Big East circles before the season started was the league’s player of the year award was Providence guard Kris Dunn’s to lose.
Three months later, the slick point guard has done nothing to diminish his standing as a top candidate for the award. He leads the Big East in steals and assists, is second in scoring and ranks among the conference’s rebounding leaders. He is still being mentioned as a contender for national player of the year honors.
At the beginning of the season, most folks around the league felt Dunn’s selection was going to be a no-brainer. It’s not now.
Villanova’s Josh Hart is the best player on the league’s best team. Marquette freshman Henry Ellenson has been a double-double machine. Seton Hall guard Isaiah Whitehead has added maturity to his vast talents.
“There are a lot of guys in the category, and I think we’re all going to have a hard time because this league is so talented and there are so many great players playing at an extremely
high level,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said. “It’s going to be a hard day when we have to pick the best player.”
The 10 Big East coaches pick the individual awards in addition to all-conference honors. If this scribe had a vote, I know which player would gain my support.
The Providence sophomore center has improved his game from last season to this season more than any other Big East player. And no player, Dunn included, has been more valuable to his team than Bentil.
“Ben has made one of the biggest jumps by a player in our league in a long time,” Providence coach Ed Cooley said. “His ascension in college basketball has been really, really remarkable to see.”
As a freshman, the 6-foot-9 Bentil played his way into a starting role on the Friars’ NCAA tournament team. He averaged 6.4 points and 4.9 rebounds while shooting 43.6 percent from the field and 61.5 percent from the free-throw line.
Nice first-season numbers, but hardly a portent of what was to come.
“We recruited him in high school, and the progress he made from his senior year to his freshman year was really significant,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “The progress he’s made since his freshman year is the best in the country.”
Through his first 25 games this season, Bentil is averaging a Big East-best 20.6 points per game and ranks fifth in the league in rebounding with a 7.7 average. He’s improved his shooting percentage to 47.2 from the field, and become a dead-eye from the free-throw line, making 81.7 percent of his league-high 180 attempts.
“Bentil is a man-child,” Willard said. “He’s tough to defend. He could make that 15-, 16-footer last year, but he’s just expanded his range to where he’s a constant threat from the perimeter. He’s playing at an extremely high level.”
Bentil has scored 20 points or more in 15 of Providence’s 25 games. He dropped a career-high 32 points on Massachusetts. He surpassed that Wednesday night when he scored 42 points in a double-overtime loss at Marquette.
“He’s a great player,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said after the game. “What he’s done from one year to the other should be an example for all college kids. His improvement has been amazing.”
Bentil’s production against the Golden Eagles was a season high for a Big East player and the most points scored in a conference game since Creighton’s Doug McDermott torched Providence for 45 in the final regular-season game of 2013-14.
“Last year as a freshman,” Wojciechowski said, “we all saw his potential. He’s got a big body and he’s really good around the basket. The thing he’s done this year is expand his game.”
Providence has ridden Bentil and Dunn hard this season. They form the league’s most dynamic 1-2 scoring punch, but lack of support from their supporting cast has cost the Friars as they’ve wound their way through the league.
The loss to Marquette left Providence 6-6 and in a sixth-place tie with Butler. Four of the Friars’ six remaining regular-season games will be against teams in the league’s upper division.
Cooley’s focus at this point is getting his team to finish as strong as it can, and he knows Bentil gives the Friars a chance to do that.
“He’s playing with a level of confidence,” Cooley said, “that he knows makes him a great basketball player. Player of the year? I can’t answer that.
“That’s for the other coaches to vote on. All I know is that Ben is playing at a level that we need him to.”
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