Bennett Koch has a few pairs of shoes to fill this season at Northern Iowa. Even for a 6-foot-9 power forward, those shoes are quite enormous.
Yes, Bennett is one of those Kochs. The ones who helped Northern Iowa to a Missouri Valley title and Sweet 16 appearance in 2010. The ones who have had a family member on the roster from the moment coach Ben Jacobson took the Northern Iowa job in 2006 up to the present day.
Adam Koch was the 2010 MVC Player of the Year. Jake Koch was an MVC Player of the Week and the second player in conference history with at least 1,000 points, 600 rebounds, 100 3-pointers, 100 assists, 100 blocks and 100 steals.
Their parents, Brian and Donna, haven’t missed more than a half dozen games in the last nine years, Jacobson estimates.
“Their family is a very, very close-knit family,” Jacobson says.
College basketball fans know the Kochs, but they do not know Bennett. The youngest brother averaged just 4.1 minutes per game last season as a redshirt freshman, and some fans wondered why he wasn’t as impressive as his older counterparts.
But his brothers’ shoes are not the ones Bennett, 20, needs to fill.
Last year’s frontcourt starters, MVC Player of the Year Seth Tuttle and Marvin Singleton, graduated. Those are the large shoes waiting for Bennett. Jacobson plans to use the sophomore in the rotation immediately, and possibly even as a starter.
As Bennett tries to take his game to the next level so he can be productive in this role, he looks at his family’s success as a learning opportunity.
“There’s always going to be pressure,” Bennett, 20, says. “But I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing. I think it would be foolish of me to look at my brothers’ careers and not try to learn what I can from them because they’ve had such great success in the past.”
This past offseason, Jake joined the coaching staff as a graduate assistant, furthering the bond between family and basketball program.
“It’s good and bad,” Bennett says about having his 25-year-old brother around. “Sometimes we get on each other’s nerves, but for the most part it’s for the best.”
Jake has supported Bennett since joining the staff — maybe sometimes supporting him too much.
He says sometimes, when watching practice film, he finds himself only watching what Bennett is doing. Then he has to go back, rewatch the tape and pay closer attention to the team as a whole.
“Obviously being my brother, I pay extra close attention to what he does in practice and I can be a little too picky,” Jake says. “I have something to say after every play pretty much. And I know that can drive any player a little mad.”
The older brother’s tips are valuable, but Jacobson thinks even without the extra coaching attention, simply Jake’s presence around the program can help Bennett succeed in a more prominent role.
“Right now, with Bennett just getting started and going, to have Jake here, it certainly takes some of that load off of his shoulders,” Jacobson says. “Bennett sees him when he comes through the office. (Jake) is able to get in and get on the floor as a graduate manager. He can help him with his game a little bit. But I would tell you the biggest thing for Bennett is just having Jake around.”
The age gap prevented Bennett from ever practicing with Jake, who is 27 years old. But with Jake being closer in age, he has practiced with Bennett plenty.
“We were blessed to be tall and be able to see over defenders,” Bennett says of himself and Jake, who is also 6-foot-9. “So Jake was always a great passer and always kind of knew where the defense was, where to go to get a certain type of shot. I think that’s something I’m trying to learn.”
Although the older Koch brothers received great recognition by the end of their college careers, they, like Bennett, were not stars from day one. Adam averaged 2.8 points per game as a freshman before breaking out one year later. Jake was slightly more productive at 3.5 points per game during his first season.
Bennett had noted how his brothers’ careers started off somewhat slow as well, but he received an extra morale boost when Jacobson showed him the stats of former Wisconsin standout Frank Kaminsky. Kaminsky averaged only 7.7 minutes per game as a freshman and saw only a slight increase as a sophomore.
Two seasons ago, Kaminsky exploded into an All-Big Ten player. Last year, he was college basketball’s Player of the Year, averaging 18.8 points and 8.2 rebounds.
“That was kind of eye opening because I’ve never really compared myself to someone who’s had so much success as him,” Bennett says. “I don’t want to say I didn’t have any hope before, but I have a lot more hope. And it shows Coach has faith in me and what I can achieve.”
Bennett knows that even if he cracks the starting lineup this season, he will not be the team’s focal point. Although the Panthers lost their frontcourt, they return one of the conference’s top guards in Wes Washpun as well as a pair of sharpshooters in Matt Bohannon and Paul Jesperson.
“I think my focus is on just trying to help the team in whatever way I can,” Bennett says. “Coach has always stressed defense. And he’s really been stressing rebounding and blocking out. So I’ll have to focus on those two things.”
Bennett earned a starting spot in the Panthers’ preseason exhibition matchup, totaling eight points and seven rebounds in 13 minutes of action.
Bennett, along with fellow sophomores Ted Friedman and Klint Carlson, is going to replace the void left by Tuttle and Singleton. And the inexperienced trio will be challenged immediately with games against North Carolina, Iowa State, New Mexico, Stephen F. Austin and Colorado State in non-conference play.
“Not everything is gonna go perfectly,” Jacobson says. “And to be able to understand that, that’s part of it. That’s gonna be a real key for them because it isn’t gonna go perfect against these teams.”
Northern Iowa is already a familiar place for Bennett. Not only is this his third year in school there, but Adam started playing for the Panthers when Bennett was 11 years old. He grew up fantasizing about having a successful career wearing purple and gold.
His brothers are a major reason — possibly the biggest reason — why he plays his college ball in Cedar Falls. Although Bennett wants to emulate them, he ultimately just wants to create his own success, whatever that turns out to be.
“I’ve come to believe that if I play hard, do what I can do and not try to do anything out of my league,” Bennett says, “then I will probably affect the game positively when I’m out there.”