Eagle grad makes winning decision to stay at College of Idaho

Ben Van Lith could’ve walked away — now he’s in the NAIA Division II men's basketball national tournament.

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comMarch 12, 2014 

Senior forward Ben Van Lith is shooting 47.6 percent from the floor, but his value comes in many ways. “He really brings great leadership to the team. He has a great attitude every day,” coach Scott Garson said. “No matter what happens, he picks guys up.”

KYLE GREEN — kgreen@idahostatesman.com

— Ben Van Lith was ready to walk away from college basketball last spring with a business degree and a body’s worth of injuries.

But Van Lith, who had a year of eligibility remaining, figured he’d at least hear what new College of Idaho coach Scott Garson had to say, particularly about the Coyotes’ playing style.

“The first day he said, ‘80, 90, 100 points a game,’ ” Van Lith recalled. “And that basically sold me right there. I love to get up the floor and run. I wasn’t coming back to play in the 40s again, that’s for sure.”

So Van Lith, an Eagle High graduate who was an Idaho Statesman 5A All-Idaho first-team selection in 2009, added a minor (history), a concentration (marketing) and a few random classes for one more season in Caldwell.

Van Lith is battling an assortment of injuries — again — but is averaging 8.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 20.4 minutes per game in 22 games for the Coyotes.

“He’s added a lot. I don’t know that we’d be where we are right now without him,” said Garson, in his first season at the school.

The Coyotes (28-5) are back in the NAIA Division II National Tournament, seeded No. 2 and legitimate contenders for their first national title since 1996. The Cascade Conference regular-season and tournament champions play hosts College of the Ozarks on Wednesday in Point Lookout, Mo. Tip-off is 7 p.m. MT.

“I wouldn’t change it,” Van Lith said of his fifth season. “I’d like not to be hurt, but it’s been fun.”

The 6-foot-6 Van Lith, one of 10 Coyotes averaging between 13.9 and 28.9 minutes per game, is dealing with two torn hip flexors, a sprained ankle, a sprained foot and, most recently, a bulging disk in his back. Van Lith missed several weeks at the end of the season, but returned for the conference tournament title game.

“Basically, tape has gotten me through my college career,” said Van Lith, who began at the College of Southern Idaho, but played just two games before suffering a season-ending injury.

Early in the season, Van Lith was injured during a 5-on-0 drill with no contact at practice.

“Our whole team jokes with him that we’re going to send Ben to class in a bubble and we’re going to wrap him with bubble wrap on the plane,” Garson said.

There has been some benefit, however, to Van Lith’s recent time off. He is fresher than most heading into the national tournament. He dunked in the conference title game, showing explosiveness that Garson said he hadn’t seen since the summer.

Van Lith’s biggest asset has been his versatility. Primarily a power forward, he has spent many games at small forward and even some at center. His athleticism and length are key in the Coyotes’ fullcourt, pressure defense.

“I bring energy off the bench. I do whatever coach needs me to do. I have the skill set to do a bunch of different things,” Van Lith said. “Whatever coach needs me to do at the time, I step in and do it.”

Van Lith not the only athlete in the family — and maybe not the best.

Older sister Kim played volleyball at Boise State. Younger sister Betty is playing volleyball at Metro State in Denver. His wife, Jessica Peacock, played at San Diego State and on the Australian women’s national team. All three, along with his parents, will be in Missouri for the tournament.

Van Lith is considering a pro career in Australia — after hip surgery.

“Who wouldn’t want to play basketball for a career?” he said. “We’ll see how my injuries go. I’ve got to get through this season. My body is beat up.”

That won’t stop him from sacrificing it in hopes of winning a national title.

In a practice scrimmage last week, Van Lith’s team led by six with 20 seconds remaining when he soared across the court to block a shot.

“He never stops playing hard,” Garson said. “He came from the other side of the floor and sprint to block a shot, to save a layup. It was such an athletic play, such an effort play. Really it was typical Ben Van Lith and we ended practice on that.

“It was just great, a winning play.”

Brian Murphy: 377-6444, Twitter: @MurphsTurph

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