Trying to finish up classwork and exams, Bilal Benn found himself yesterday in a peculiar situation.
He is a Villanova student and a Villanova athlete, but he's now a short-termer.
Next semester, Benn will be headed north. The sophomore guard is transferring to Niagara University.
"It is weird," Benn said with a laugh. "But everybody accepts what I'm doing. They understand why, so I think that helps."
Benn has been agonizing over the decision to stay or go since the final buzzer sounded in Villanova's NCAA Tournament first-round loss to Kentucky. Content with the university, his teammates and coaches, Benn said in the end the chance to have an increased playing role convinced him it was time to pack his bags.
After finding it tough to get on the court last season - Benn, a 6-5 guard/forward, averaged just 9.3 minutes per game - he recognized quickly that next season would be even more difficult. The Wildcats welcome three stud recruits to campus this fall, two of whom are guards; the third, Corey Stokes, plays guard and forward.
"It was hard, really hard," Benn said. "The guys here, the coaches, they taught me everything I know. It's like leaving my family again. But I just wanted a different role. It wasn't that I was unhappy here but I wanted to go someplace where I could do more."
Benn considered a number of schools, many of them in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, but ended up choosing a program that already was familiar with him. Niagara tried to recruit Benn out of Cardinal Dougherty High School, but backed off once Benn initially made a commitment to Siena, before changing his mind to attend Hargrave Military Academy.
Benn had never met Niagara coach Joe Mihalich during the original recruiting process - the two spoke only by phone - but immediately felt a connection with the Philadelphia native when he visited Niagara earlier this month.
"He's very family-oriented, reminds me really a lot of coach [Jay] Wright," Benn said. "That's why I liked him. I didn't want too much of a change because I've been so happy with the situation I had here at Villanova."
Mihalich, who also will be welcoming Connecticut transfer Rob Garrison to campus in the fall, said he let out at a cheer at 6:49 a.m. yesterday (he checked his voice mail for the exact time) when Benn officially said he would be coming to Niagara.
The Purple Eagles last year slogged through a 1-6 start before righting the ship to win the MAAC Tournament and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Slotted into the play-in game, they beat Florida A & M before getting uprooted by top seed Kansas in the first round.
"He's the kind of kid who can make an immediate impact in our league," Mihalich said. "He's got all-conference potential. He can play so many positions for us and is the kind of player who, if he gets a rebound, can push the ball up the floor for us. He's a great defender and he's got that toughness, that hard shell. He will be a great, great player for us."
Benn leaves Villanova with no hard feelings or animosity and plans to root hard for his former team in the years to come.
Wright, he said, was nothing but helpful in trying to find him a new basketball home.
"He gave me the freedom to look but also told me I'd be welcome back," Benn said. "This has nothing to do with the coaches, the school or my teammates. I just wanted a chance to have a different role."
Under NCAA rules, Benn will sit out this season as a transfer and will be eligible for the 2008-09 season. *