Men’s basketball: Watching D.J.

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Perhaps one of the most compelling figures in MAC basketball, D.J. Cooper had seen 2011 close by leading his team to a 12-1 record and making his legend grow larger. As students, staff, and fans piled into the Convocation Center on January 2 at the beckoning of head coach John Groce, it began to become clear that the stage was growing at least as fast.

After his integral role in the Bobcats improbable run of two years ago, Cooper took on a whole new responsibility in Athens. With his backcourt teammate Armon Bassett leaving amidst an assortment of controversy, Cooper became the undisputed on-court leader of Ohio’s basketball program. The team and Cooper struggled often through his sophomore year drawing a degree of dissent from Bobcat nation.

The fast start to 2011 may have mitigated the apprehension of fans, or it may have fueled the fire by lifting their expectations. Either way, the winter of 2012 will be crucial to the legacy Cooper leaves at Ohio. And this is his story.

D.J. Cooper breathed on his cusped hands as if he were about to play outdoors on blustery Monday night in Athens. He was going through last minute warm-ups before closing up non-conference play and opening up 2012 against Robert Morris.

It felt like a fitting way to open up the new year. Cooper was loose with an indelible coolness about him. It was an impressive look for an athlete that hardly ever escapes scrutiny. After all, Cooper has more pressure on him at this moment than he had at any point in his career.

He is charged with being the leader of a team with suddenly heightened expectations. He has been succumbed to precedential scrutiny from a disappointing sophomore campaign. And it is even worth mentioning that he has a fan favorite and exciting freshman point guard behind him on the bench. At 12-1, the relationship between superstar and loveable backup is hardly ever a concern, but it is a dynamic worth monitoring as the grind of the conference season becomes imminent.

And so, the ball was tipped. Two dynamite mid-major basketball teams began to slog it out against each other one final time before heading into conference play. For D.J. Cooper the goal had to be singular—win. Amidst a season with only a few great personal performances, Cooper had carved out a course in which a win could redeem any kind of mediocrity on his part.

A long three sailed out of Cooper’s left hand and clanked off the rim. A driving pass flailed helplessly into the courtside Pep Band. A three pointer lifted over contested hands fell off target. And the whispers began.

Perhaps the amount of discord expressed over Cooper’s shot selection is justified. Maybe it’s a little harsh. Nevertheless it is there, and for whatever reason no other Ohio athlete can stir up so much scrutiny in such a short period of time. Fans met his early mishaps with groans and expressions of angst. The underlying debate in the Convo inevitably turned to whether the team was better or worse with Cooper on the floor.

A beautiful assist is fired into teammate Reggie Keely for a three-point play. A manic defensive effort forces a rare five-second violation against the opposing point guard. A no-look jump pass feeds Walter Offutt for a layup.

If no Ohio athlete could frustrate fans as fast as Cooper, certainly no Ohio athlete could excite them as fast either. Yet to score a field goal, Cooper showed onlookers how well rounded his game could be. It read to the keen eye as a subliminal plea for patience, for if Cooper could contribute for a while in other ways, he could bring his scoring in as a scintillating supplement to win back their favor.

A floater goes awry, very awry. It tumbles through the air and nothing but the air. Cooper finds himself at the forefront of basketball infamy, as the executor of an air ball.

It’s hard to measure whether Cooper thinks about the consequences of such a shot. It seems natural that it would be unnerving. With his team down 11, it was inevitable that we would find out.

A drained three to bring the Bobcats within eight. A steal and dunk combination to pull them within six. An astute pass into Ivo Baltic for a lay-in to bring them within five. And finally, a steal brought back for a buzzer-beating three pointer to reduce the deficit to two going into the halftime locker room.

Alas, it all makes sense now. In a matter of moments all anxiety was put to rest. This is precisely why D.J. Cooper is the king of the Convo. This was unnatural, unsettling, unbelievable. D.J. Cooper did not just frantically bring his team back within striking distance. He physically placed a palpable charge of adrenaline in every one of the 6,000-plus fans in attendance Monday night.

One would be hard pressed to find a scientist that could explain that. One person in a span of a few minutes making a group of people feel like gravity doesn’t exist for a short period of time. In that moment and during the halftime period, you would be hard pressed to find someone that wouldn’t want Cooper leading their team.

The second half was more of a tragedy. Missed shots amalgamating with missed shots. A painfully exhilarating comeback that was ultimately coupled with what has become the rare distaste of a Bobcat defeat. For Cooper, it was three missed 3-pointers in the final 90 seconds of the game including a last second attempt to tie the game from the baseline that sailed over the rim for yet another air ball.

Chapter one of 2012 ended with Ohio’s star on the ground lamenting his teams defeat and his powerless attempt to salvage them at the buzzer. Generally, when a player of Cooper’s stature shows such exasperation it is a moment that lasts 20 seconds and seems like an hour. It is a moment where he spends time in deep reflection as if he is alone in a dark gym.

This moment didn’t feel like that. Cooper’s dejection lasted roughly five seconds, and it felt like one. He bounced to his feet and congratulated the night's worthy opponent.

His handling of the loss was almost eerily indicative of what will define his 2012 season. In bouncing up so quickly he almost seemed so ready to turn the page. It is almost as if he knew that the 15-game sprint to the end of February that is MAC play is the place where stars like him make their most lasting mark.