Commentary

Cooper lacks height -- not might

Chicago product D.J. Cooper and the Ohio Bobcats are upset-minded

Updated: March 16, 2012, 1:48 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Ohio University point guard D.J. Cooper's high school coach calls him "different."

"He's not your typical 5-9, 5-10 guy trying to distribute and stay out of the way of losing," said Seton Academy coach Brandon Thomas. "He's there to win."

D.J. Cooper's college coach, John Groce calls their relationship "unique."

"He and I have a very unique relationship," Groce said during a 30-minute phone conversation this week. "I trust him a great deal. I tease him that 80 percent of the time he makes me look like a million dollars, and the other 20 percent like I don't know what the heck I'm doing."

[+] EnlargeD.J. Cooper
Tim G. Zechar/Icon SMID.J. Cooper brings a Chicago toughness to the point guard position.

Cooper, a junior, is Ohio's all-time leader in assists and is five shy of the steals record, and if his numbers stay on his career pace, next season he will eclipse 2,000 points -- a milestone only four players have achieved, all of whom played in the NBA. He can make the flashy pass and isn't afraid to bomb 3s that would make Kyle Korver shake his head.

Cooper, a Hazel Crest, Ill., native, is listed, generously, at 5-foot-11, with a Rajon Rondo-like wingspan and he plays with an edge familiar to Chicago point guards. It's one that can be unsettling to teammates, opponents and fans. He's got a bit of a Napoleon complex.

"I think that's where my attitude comes from," he said of his smaller stature and status as a mid-major player. "I want to prove a point that I can win and that I'm one of the elite guards in the country."

If you like upsets and undersized point guards who aren't afraid to pull up from 30 feet, Cooper is a guy you might want to remember as the 13-seed Bobcats prepare to take on 4-seed Michigan in the second round of the NCAA tournament Friday night.

There are no Illinois teams in the tournament, as you might've heard, and while it's fun to see another Chicagoan dominate in Kentucky's Anthony Davis, it's more fun to root for the little guys from the city, such as Cooper or South Dakota State's Griffan Callahan (Seneca). Aurora's Ryan Boatright, who went through the NCAA rules wringer, could be a factor for defending champion UConn.

I will pause here to say I'm an Ohio alum, and thus a fan of this team. I watched the Mid-American Conference championship on a TV in the club seats lobby at the United Center. I took my wife to a game for her birthday and left her sitting alone in the fourth quarter as I watched the down-to-the-wire end, twitching and yelling like Tom Thibodeau.

But the reason I tout Ohio isn't just blatant homerism. If you love the tournament, it's not just about brackets and going chalk. Until it gets to the Final Four, no one really roots for top seeds.

I love the tournament, and you probably do, too, because you like seeing the little guy take down the big boys. And Cooper is the type of guy March is made for.

Unless you follow the MAC religiously, the last time you probably saw Cooper was in the 2010 NCAA tournament when he helped lead Ohio to a 97-83 first-round upset of Georgetown before falling to Tennessee in the next round. The Bobcats were the ninth seed in the MAC tournament before exploding late in the season.

Cooper hit 5 of 8 3-pointers in that game, scored 23 points and added eight assists. He weighed about 150 pounds at the time and looked like someone's feisty little brother.

This year, Ohio was a tournament 3-seed and set the school record for wins in a season with 27, nearly knocking off Louisville at home.

Expectations have matured. So has Cooper, who has added about 25 pounds. He will train with Tim Grover this summer to further his development. That can only be good news for Ohio, a team with no seniors.

Few people picked the Bobcats to beat Georgetown -- "I didn't pick them to win," Thomas said. "I'm not going to lie. He busted up my bracket." -- but more will have them beating Michigan, an erratic Big Ten team. Two years ago, the team fed off disrespect. Now it's a trendy upset pick.

"We hear the rumors that we could upset Michigan," he said in a phone conversation from Nashville. "We wouldn't feel like it was an upset. We feel like it would mean we had a good game."

You might remember Cooper if you follow Chicago high school basketball closely. After he transferred from Hales Franciscan to Seton before his senior year, following his favorite assistant coach Thomas, Cooper led the school to the 2A state title with a 31-2 record.

Seton's second and final loss came against Catholic League rival Leo in the Big Dipper tournament. After the game, his rival point guard, James Pointer, told reporters he kept a list of higher-touted point guards and crossed them off when he beat them.

Cooper read the story and cut it out of the Chicago Sun-Times. He put the story in his sock when Seton played Leo again, and when they won by 20 points, he pulled it out and showed reporters. That's a little intense, and it says a lot of Cooper.

"Yeah, it says a lot about the fact he's competitor with a natural chip on his shoulder," Thomas said. " Any underrated, undersized productive player should play with that chip on his shoulder."

Asked about the story, Cooper said, "Oh yeah, most definitely. I was surprised he said that, knowing we were in same conference and face each other two more times. He had a pretty good game, but I took it to heart the next two times."

Cooper improved his standing as a college recruit as his senior year went on. At one point, Baylor was high on him, Thomas said, and the coach wanted him to go there. But Cooper would've had to come off the bench for at least a year, and he wasn't having it. Another big-time school -- Thomas swore me to secrecy -- supposedly tried to steal Cooper after his commitment to Ohio.

After two MAC tournament titles in three seasons, Cooper is happy where's at and now he wants more. After Ohio-Michigan was announced, he texted one word to Thomas: "Yessir."

"I feel like we match up great," Cooper said, and that's true in a sense. Michigan doesn't have size to dominate and Ohio has done a good job defending the 3-point shot, but no teams in the MAC shoot like Michigan.

Like all competitors, Cooper likes the head-to-head matchups, and he's excited to go against Michigan freshman Trey Burke, a similarly sized but higher-recruited lead guard. Ohio recruited Burke -- Groce came to Athens from Ohio State -- before he became a Big Ten target, but Cooper has never played against him.

"I'm excited for the challenge," Cooper said. "I feel like I'm just as good, if not better than him. We're just not on TV as much, so it's harder to get notoriety. I can play with anybody in the country."

Cooper will not hesitate to shoot, and if he's on, he's electric. When he's off, well, let's just say if he winds up playing in Europe, he might start some riots with his shot selection.

Cooper shot 34.8 percent from the field this year and just 31.1 on 3s. But in the last two games of the MAC tournament, he went 9-for-20 from beyond the arc, some of them much longer than NBA 3s.

Groce, an emotive sideline stroller, says he's at peace with Cooper's trigger-happy approach.

"We're playing Toledo in the tournament, and as he came down I thought we needed to get the ball in the paint, we're in the bonus," Groce said. "But I can tell he's going to pull up, so I call a timeout. He says, 'Coach I was ready to pull it.' I said, 'Why do you think I called the timeout?' He laughed."

Groce's ability to connect with younger players, and not stifle them, is one of many reasons he will be in demand after the tournament. Illinois should do some investigating if Shaka Smart doesn't work out. He was a master recruiter when he worked under Thad Matta.

"One time at a clinic, Doc Rivers said one thing he wishes he would've done as a young coach was be less controlling with his best players, because it takes away from their aggressiveness," Groce said. "So I try to do that with D.J. He feels like he has to be aggressive, be in attack mode, and to do that, if he has to take one or two shots that makes people cross their eyes over, so be it. If you bridle him, he's not going to be nearly as good or aggressive."

Cooper isn't quite misunderstood -- some of his shots are a little ridiculous -- but because the offense flows through him, even more than a typical point guard, the ball often ends up in his hands.

"D.J.'s so competitive, he's not out there shooting shots because he wants to shoot them," Thomas said. "He's taking that shot because in his mind that's a good shot in his situation and he's capable of making it."

"Sometimes that's kind of my role," Cooper said. "To take crazy shots on this team."

Crazy shots. Isn't that what March is all about?

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.