Ohio’s D.J. Cooper closing on unique record

D.J. Cooper’s first inclination was not to start doing the math, but rather to roll his eyes.

He thought someone was lying to him.

The topic at hand was a unique, record-breaking feat that the Ohio University point guard unwittingly has spent four seasons chasing. Cooper is likely to become the first player in the history of Division I college basketball to collect 2,000 points, 900 assists, 500 rebounds and 300 steals in his career.

Cooper, one of 20 finalists for the Cousy Award as the nation’s top point guard, is the Mid-American Conference’s all-time assist leader and one of the most dynamic players the conference ever has seen. But to possibly land in the rarest of air, at statistical landmarks no player has ever reached previously? The already-shy Cooper has a hard time believing it could be true.

“There have been so many great players in college basketball; I thought no way,” Cooper said. “I had a couple people tell me early in the season that it was lining up that way, but I thought they were making it up.

“I can’t think about it. I just have to play as hard as possible. If it happens, that’s a compliment to my teammates, who have always trusted me with the ball. It’s a tribute to hard work over four years, both by myself and my team.”

Cooper is guaranteed 12 more games; some sort of postseason play seems likely, too, for 15-6 Ohio, but that’s not a given. Cooper has 1,900 points and should pass the 2,000-point plateau by the last week of February. He’s just 39 assists short of 900 now and is averaging 8.0 assists per game for the season. He’s already at 302 steals, just 12 short of cracking the top 25 in NCAA history, and he has 583 rebounds. 

—Watch MAC basketball on SportsTime Ohio – C. Michigan @ Akron (Tue, Feb 5 – 7pm) — Buffalo @ E. Michigan (Wed, Feb 6 – 7pm) — W. Michigan @ Ball State (Sat, Feb 9 – 6pm)—

Cooper, who’s listed at 6 feet and certainly isn’t a hair over, chuckles at the rebound number, because four years ago he was a recruit that many major programs deemed too small. UNLV and the Big Ten took a look but not a longer one at the Chicago native, and Baylor showed interest in Cooper after it didn’t get John Wall. Cooper seemed ready to decide among Baylor, Kent State and Valparaiso before Ohio hired John Groce in spring 2009, and Groce got Cooper to commit before his final high school season.

“I’ve always had that chip on my shoulder,” Cooper said. “I wasn’t highly recruited. I’ve definitely let that drive me.”

First-year Ohio coach Jim Christian was at TCU at the time, and his program wasn’t often recruiting Chicago. He jokes now that he should have been and said he’s grateful to have had the opportunity to coach such a unique player, even for just one season.

“In regards to the record and to D.J., these situations don’t come up very often,” Christian said. “It takes not only a special player but the right situation for him to be an impact player for four years. They’re few and far between for a reason. It has to be an ideal fit for both parties, and a freshman has to be mature enough to step up and lead and good enough doing it to be accepted. D.J. obviously stepped up as a leader early and has grown in that role since.”

Playing some extra games has helped, too — and those games would not have been played if not for Cooper’s heroics. As a freshman he scored 23 points in both the MAC tournament championship game and a first-round NCAA tournament upset of Georgetown. Last year, Ohio beat Akron in the MAC tournament final, then toppled Michigan and South Florida to get to the Sweet 16, where the Bobcats were eliminated by North Carolina in overtime.

Cooper was the 2012 MAC tournament MVP and had a 21-point, five-assist game vs. Michigan.

Though discussion of this potential record has just popped up in recent weeks, last year’s success raised the bar and the profile for Cooper and Ohio in his senior season. The nonconference schedule was upgraded, too, and the Bobcats have been getting everybody’s best shot, in every game.

“It’s changed things for the better,” Cooper said. “I always wanted to be a part of raising expectations and taking the program to another level. We asked for this.”

Cooper is in 20th place on the NCAA’s all-time assists list, and he’s 111 assists short of passing Steve Blake and cracking the top five. Cooper said he’s always had “a God-given talent” for finding open teammates and credits his teammates for finishing enough plays to put him in position to move so high on that list.

“His vision is outstanding, but a lot of guys have great vision,” Christian said. “A lot of guys see the play. With D.J., it’s not just seeing it but it’s his ability to get the ball to people, through windows, through traffic, at the right time and the right angle so they can score.

“He’s an amazing passer. He doesn’t just see things people don’t see, he throws the pass at the right speed and to the right place. He knows how fast to throw it. He throws passes at angles that other people couldn’t imagine.”

Cooper’s 14.5 points per game scoring average this year is slightly down from the past two seasons, but he’s been a more efficient scorer. He’s shooting 43 percent from the field and 34 percent from beyond the 3-point arc, both easily career highs. He said he’s gained 20 pounds of muscle since he was barely 150 and a fearless freshman, and he’s gained perspective, too.

“I still shoot those really deep 3-pointers, but I’ve learned those are usually a sign of a bad possession,” he said. “I think I’ve always been a passer, but now I’m a smarter player. I’m appreciative. I like when the other team’s crowd gets on us. I like when we’re down late and I have the ball in my hands.

“It’s been too much fun for me not to thank everybody and just try to keep it going for as long as we can make it go.”