Alma's little brother comes up big

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With Jason's emergence as an ultra-efficient sixth man, Alma's opponents now have two Beckmans to worry about.
Photo by Paul Beroza

By Paul Beroza

Whether it be the 16 points he scored in 24 minutes in the MIAA semifinals last season or the 15.5 points and four assists he averaged in leading Alma College to its first-ever MIAA tournament title this season, Jason Beckman has proven one thing in his short college basketball career: he saves his best for when it counts the most.

"We've seen the term 'gamer' thrown out a lot in sports, but with Jason, I really do think there's some truth to it," remarked Alma head coach Sam Hargraves about the play of his sophomore point guard.

Jason is 'the other Beckman,' so to speak, on a team captained by his older brother DJ, a senior starter and Jostens Trophy finalist. "But it's not some magic potion that he drinks before the game. I would call him a gamer, but I would also call him a practicer. There's really no secret to it, the kid's just put in the work."

When the Scots made their NCAA tournament debut last weekend – perhaps the two biggest games in the history of a program that hasn't won a men's basketball conference title outright since the 1940s – Jason Beckman delivered again, coming off the bench to pour in 14 points, six rebounds and four assists in an opening round victory over Denison. He then finished the weekend with the best performance of his career, a spectacular 23-point gem against fifth-ranked John Carroll in which he scored 17 in the first half when nobody else could find the range.

"Big games can make or break you," Beckman said. "And I think, sometimes, the energy of big games fuels me and also us as a team. We have a lot to prove, so I just like to carry that burden and chip into every game."

Undersized at just 5-foot-11, Beckman's stature is underwhelming as far as basketball players go and Hargraves was skeptical about how quickly he'd be able to adjust to the superior size and athleticism of the college game when he first recruited him out of Shelby (Mich.) High School in 2013-14.

"Is his body going to be ready for it?" Hargraves remembers questioning. "He's always going to be a shorter player, that's never going to change, but we underestimated how physically strong he is. We underestimated how much of a beating he can take and still keep going. And I underestimated how quick he is, how good of a ball handler he is and how fast he would improve. He really rose to that next level of competition faster than I thought he could."

Beckman's emergence as one of the most dangerous sixth-men in Division III is certainly notable, but, in retrospect, maybe its not so surprising. The sport of basketball is deeply-rooted in the Beckman family – his dad and uncle both starred for Hope in the early '80s – and he's had to compete against several brothers and cousins for bragging rights basically his entire life.

"I think a lot of it comes from putting in the work in the summer and competing with my brothers DJ and Danny," Beckman remarked. "Being enthralled with the game really. I enjoy every facet of the game so I'm constantly looking to improve."

Beckman's hard work has certainly paid off as his 55.6 field-goal percentage, 53.7 three-point field-goal percentage and 90 free-throw percentage in 2015-16 makes him as one of the most economic players in all of college basketball. Combined with starting point guard Scott Nikodemski, who was second in Division III in field goal percentage entering the week at 66.3 percent, the Scots have unmatched efficiency at the least efficient position on the court.

"It makes us so dangerous having both of those guys," Hargraves said. "Not to take anything away from what Scottie's done, but Jason, in some ways, has been just as impressive because he does it with more perimeter jump shooting. Scottie is clearly superior at getting all the way to the basket, but Jason has an insane three-point percentage, and then just the incredible pull up jump shooting and creative little fade away shots he has – he's shooting them at such a high clip that it's almost surprising when he doesn't make them."

Ironically, in tipping off against seventh-ranked St. Norbert (25-2) from Benedictine's Rice Center on Friday, Alma is going up against one of the few 'big game' opponents against whom Beckman has not starred this season. The December matchup between Alma and St. Norbert was one of Beckman's worst games statistically as he finished with no points, one rebound and two assists while going 0-for-3 from the field in 26 minutes of work.

The Scots, however, pulled out one of their most impressive wins of the campaign, downing the Green Knights in convincing fashion on the road, 82-65, and Hargraves believes the poor individual performance hasn't even crossed his sophomore's mind as they prepare for the rematch.

"That's the beauty of our team," he said. "We don't think that way. I honestly wonder if he would even know necessarily. All he's going to know is that we beat them and our team played really well."

Beckman might not be thinking about his last performance against St. Norbert and, in accordance with the Scots' philosophy, he won't come out looking to score a set amount of points to make amends.

But if his past performances in big games are any indication of how he will play on Friday when the teams tip off, the Green Knights are unlikely to hold him down again.