Young romantics and basketball coaches often fall in love by accident.
Two years ago, John Groce became enamored with a slender basketball beauty from Chicago. Groce had just left his job as associate head coach of Ohio State and moved about 80 miles southeast to become the head coach at Ohio University. In terms of recruits and relevance, it's a world away. And he knew he needed players.
"I had just gotten the job, and I was looking for a point guard who could run our system," Groce said in a phone conversation from Providence, R.I. "So I went to Augusta, Ga., to see this big kid play, and D.J. was playing the big kid. I immediately called my staff and said, 'I found the guy.'"
The guy is D.J. Cooper, a south suburban Chicagoan who has turned out to be The Man for Groce and his Bobcats, the 14th seed in the Midwest bracket of the NCAA tournament. Ohio will play No. 3 Georgetown on Thursday night (6:25 CST) in Providence.
Cooper, one of the more highly ranked recruits to come to Ohio in some time, scored 23 points and added seven rebounds, six assists and two blocks in the MAC championship game, an 81-75 overtime thriller Saturday night.
The slim, 5-foot-10 (when in shoes), 165-pound (when sopping wet) wisp of a guard -- he's the spitting image of the young rapper Bow Wow -- has quickly adapted to Ohio, a school known for parties, its journalism school and basketball, in that order. (Full disclosure: I enjoyed all three in my time there, from 1997 to 2001.) Cooper had a stellar prep career, starting at Hales Franciscan and finishing up at Seton Academy in South Holland, but he's played beyond anyone's expectations.
In his first year, Cooper averaged 13.1 points, 5.9 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game, a full line that makes him a mini mid-major Evan Turner, the more celebrated Chicago-to-Ohio point guard. Cooper, the conference's freshman of the year, led the conference in minutes played and was ranked nationally in total assists (fifth) and steals (fourth).
No one is giving Ohio (21-14, 7-9 in the MAC) the chance at the upset. The team's current five-game winning streak is their longest of an up-and-down season that has besieged the Bobcats with injuries and discipline problems. (Champaign Centennial grad Jay Kinney, also a freshman, was suspended twice and kicked off the team.) And Georgetown had a great Big East tournament.
"We don't feel with the way we're playing, the way Armon [Bassett] is playing, like it would be an upset," Cooper said. "Armon is a high-major player; [forward] DeVaughn Washington is a high-major player. I think we're going to outrun them, advance the ball, hit our 3s. DeVaughn can outrun their bigs. Whenever it's been time to step up, everybody has stepped up."
Groce, who helped recruit Turner to Ohio State, gave the requisite "Why not us?" speech to his team already, but he likes the way his team is peaking right now, and he thinks his backcourt can handle the pressure. Bassett has played in two NCAA tournaments.
"Armon and D.J. love the big stage," he said. "They have the swagger and confidence."
While no national commentator is giving Ohio a shot to win this game -- ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi ended his video preview of the Bobcats by saying "I don't think there's any way Ohio U. comes away with the upset" -- Groce said some optimists have asked him about a possible Sweet 16 matchup with his mentor Thad Matta and the Buckeyes. That's a long shot, but Cooper said the team isn't just happy to be included. The last Ohio team to make the tournament, in 2005, nearly knocked off Florida, which had a young Joakim Noah coming off the bench.
"The whole season people have thrown us under the bus, not giving us a chance," Groce said. "But as the season went on, we kept sticking together. Once we beat Kent in the first round [of the MAC tournament], our confidence just rose higher."
Cooper has played consistently well all season but had to adjust to playing with Bassett, another ballhandling, high-scoring guard, in the backcourt. The former Indiana guard, who was excised from the program during Kelvin Sampson's tumultuous last season in 2008, led the Bobcats in scoring with 16.9 points per game, and he's certainly impressed with Cooper.
"Armon made a great point in a press conference the other day," Groce said. "He said the way that D.J.
puts up numbers in assists, steals, rebounds and points as a freshman guard, he can be only be rivaled by John Wall."
Cooper was never the biggest recruit in Chicago, but only because of his size. After transferring from Hales, he led Seton to a 2A state championship, was eighth in Mr. Basketball voting, and was the Sun-Times' small-school player of the year. He also starred for the famed MeanStreets AAU club before his senior year.
Cooper, like every good mid-major player, lists on the Ohio Web site the major schools that recruited him, but ultimately he was overlooked by most "big six" conference schools, mainly because of his size. One school that tried to get him was Kent State, a No. 1 seed in the MAC tournament, which lost to the No. 9 seed Bobcats in the second round.
Kent State has been recruiting Chicago hard under second-year head coach Geno Ford, a former Ohio star, who scored 1,752 points in his college career in the 1990s, playing in part with the "Shaq of the MAC," Gary Trent.
Ford's younger brother, Dustin, is an Ohio assistant coach, and he thinks Cooper can not only surpass his brother but also break a lot of records at the school, which at one time was a mid-major powerhouse. Cooper is off to a good start, setting the school's single-season assists (205) and steals (88) records.
"Last week he came out to my house to watch Kent and Akron play for the regular-season title," Dustin Ford said, "and when I was driving him back to campus, I said, 'Do you understand if you keep doing what you're doing, you'll have a chance to rewrite the record book here and be the best point guard in the history of the program?'
"He's a talented and unselfish kid, and as a freshman, to do what he's done, put up these kinds of numbers on a consistent base, when everyone is game-planning against him, is impressive."
Cooper has put up solid numbers all season, scoring 18 in a win over Illinois State, 29 in a win at Northern Illinois and 33 in an overtime loss at Akron, for example, but he struggled in his only game against a power school, hitting just one of 14 shots in a blowout loss to Pittsburgh on the road in December.
"We're not the same team as we were back then," Groce said.
Cooper's most telling line was in a win against Bowling Green: six points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists and seven steals. It was reminiscent of his performance in the state championship last year, when he had six points, 11 assists and nine rebounds.
"When I recruited him, I saw in him a perfect fit for how I wanted us to play, as fast as possible,"
Groce said. "In order to do that, the point guard has to make decisions at that speed and have that extra gear. D.J. has the innate ability do that. He's like a magnet for the basketball."
Cooper got nicked up in the Kent State game and had a poor start to the MAC tournament, while Bassett took over. Bassett, the Terre Haute, Ind., native who led the Big Ten in 3-point percentage his sophomore season, scored 38 against Kent, 28 in a semifinal win over Miami (Ohio) and 25 against Akron, setting the MAC tourney record for total points.
With Akron's defense keying in on Bassett in the final, Cooper scored 14 points in the first half, including a Tyus Edney-like coast-to-coast layup off an inbounds pass with five seconds left in the first half to give Ohio a two-point lead.
He hit a go-ahead 3 in overtime, hit two big free throws late in overtime and added a blocked shot. One longtime Ohio observer noted that "he has a mean streak no one has really noticed yet," and that during the Bobcats' win over Miami (Ohio), Cooper pointedly asked another player whether Miami was going to host in the CBI tournament.
Cooper can play and talk a big game, but when I asked him whether he considered himself an heir to Chicago's legacy of great point guards, he was quiet for a beat.
"I really never thought about that," he said. "Hopefully."
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.