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Ben Coupet Jr.’s journey from Simeon freshman phenom to SIU

Coupet entered high school as the top prospect in the state of Illinois way back in 2012. He signed with SIU on Wednesday.

Simeon’s Ben Coupet Jr. (1) drives down the court against Bloomington.
Simeon’s Ben Coupet Jr. (1) drives down the court against Bloomington.
Sun-Times file photo

Ben Coupet Jr. has always had the name.

Coupet entered high school as the top prospect in the state of Illinois way back in 2012. He headed to powerhouse Simeon which was coming off its third straight state championship.

Simeon was also where his father, Ben Coupet Sr., became a Public League star before he went off to play collegiately at Illinois and, eventually, at Bradley.

Coupet Jr. was expected to be the next big thing at Simeon. As a 6-7 freshman with the type of talent, upside and pedigree that Coupet possessed, the hyperbole surrounding him as a young player was probably too much, even unfair.

Coupet did have his moments — he shined as a senior in the city semifinals when he scored a career-high 24 points in a win over Morgan Park — but overall it was an up-and-down career at Simeon.

Coupet signed with UNLV. He played minimal minutes as a freshman, then redshirted as a sophomore. The minutes were even fewer the following year. He scored a total of 35 points in 26 games over two seasons of action. His three years at UNLV, playing so little, was extremely tough on Coupet.

“I’m not going to lie, it was a dark time for me,” said Coupet of his first three years of college. “I went to UNLV with a lot of high hopes. Everything was there for me to succeed — the weight room, the training, all that you get with college basketball at that level.”

But not playing and sitting out an entire year proved to be a battle he was not ready to deal with.

“The not playing, sitting on the bench for that long just kind of crushed my dreams,” said Coupet. “I really thought about giving up basketball. But I knew in the end I couldn’t do that.”

Coupet turned to his roots at Simeon to help get out of his personal basketball darkness. He watched his former Simeon teammates and classmates thriving in the sport.

When Coupet was a sophomore he saw Jabari Parker play at Duke and become the No. 3 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. While he was toiling on the bench at UNLV, he watched Zach Norvell become an instant star Gonzaga. And recently he’s watched Kendrick Nunn turn into a bona fide NBA starter with the Miami Heat while averaging 15 points a game.

Simeon’s Ben Coupet Jr. (1) gets a block shoot on Evanston’s Dylan Mulvihill (32).
Simeon’s Ben Coupet Jr. (1) gets a block shoot on Evanston’s Dylan Mulvihill (32).
Sun-Times

Coupet plays and competes against the three when they are all in Chicago. And being around that trio helped keep the fuse lit.

“Watching all the success those guys from Simeon have had in front of me — Kendrick, Zach and Jabari — kept pushing me,” said Coupet. “I thought it just wasn’t my time yet. Through those struggles of mine, I needed to keep grinding, stay in the gym and keep working. I started to feel like I would find my own success in my own way if I kept doing that.”

But his childhood hero, Derrick Rose, was one who helped him mentally. Watching the former Simeon star return from devastating injuries and put together a great second act in the NBA was a blueprint for Coupet.

“I’ve looked up to Derrick Rose since I was an 8-year-old kid,” said Coupet. “He’s my all-time favorite player, and I just really admire his story –– all of it. To go from being the youngest player ever to become NBA MVP to coming back the way he has after the injuries when so many people said he was done and doubted him? I had that same mindset.”

While the UNLV days were his darkest, Coupet admits even the early years of his basketball career at Simeon weren’t easy. The hoopla surrounding him as the heir apparent to Jabari Parker wasn’t easy to handle.

“I feel like a lot of what Derrick Rose went through with the doubting, saying he was done, all the negativity, it was to some degree what I was going through in high school,” said Coupet. “And I was only 14 or 15 years old. Going through that at that age was difficult. And seeing Derrick Rose prevail the way he has? It just really helped me a lot these last few years.”

Like Rose, Coupet is rewriting — or at least has altered — the narrative of his career.

Coupet transferred from UNLV and found his way at Arkansas-Little Rock, producing in a way that showed the talent he possessed. He went from being a no-namer riding the bench to a legit difference-maker.

He started every game for UALR in his two years there, putting up 11.2 points and 4.7 rebounds as a junior and then averaging double-figures again with 10.3 points a game this past season. He’s made 81 three-pointers in two years while shooting 37 percent from beyond the arc.

With everyone in college basketball being granted an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, the biggest beneficiary of Coupet’s rise just might be Southern Illinois. Coach Bryan Mullins and the Salukis will be getting the best of Coupet for one year after the long, athletic forward announced he is transferring to SIU.

“I’m super excited,” said Coupet of his commitment to Southern Illinois. “I did have a lot of options this time around, even some bigger ones than Southern. But that wasn’t what I was looking for. It was about comfort and trust. With all that I’ve been through, I’m big on trust. I have that with that entire staff at Southern Illinois.”

The living up to expectations of others are a thing of the past; there is no longer any skepticism surrounding Coupet. He is both physically and mentally mature for the rigors of the Missouri Valley Conference. He is enjoying basketball more than he ever has and the production and consistency has followed.

With the many ups and downs throughout his career, Coupet is anxious to get to work and make one final big splash in college.

“I want to show that SIU is a place in-state kids can go to and have success, especially from the Chicago Public League,” said Coupet. “That’s a goal of mine. I’m hoping to make something truly special in this final year.”