Christian Looks to Cooper to Take Ohio to New Heights

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The point guard’s role on the basketball court cannot be diminished.

He is labeled as the leader, the offensive facilitator and essentially a coach on the court. Oftentimes this experience gained on the court transitions well off the court as veteran point guards have historically become great coaches later in their career. The same can be said for Jim Christian, the Ohio Bobcats’ first-year head coach of the men’s basketball program.

In his prime, Christian knew how to lead a team to places it had never been before.

The St. Dominic High School standout point guard was recruited by current Louisville coach Rick Pitino at Boston University, where he played for two years before transferring to Rhode Island.

Prior to Christian’s arrival, the Rams had been to the NCAA Tournament three times, being eliminated in the first round each time. When Christian led Rhode Island into the 1988 NCAA Tournament, its team was expected to have similar results. As a No. 11 seed, the Rams faced a tough road. In every round, they faced a team that featured a future NBA player. They were the underdog in every single game.

The Rams prevailed, though. Missouri’s Derrick Chievous, who was drafted by the Houston Rockets, scored 35 points against the Rams in the first round, but Rhode Island pulled out an 87-80 victory.

The road never got easier, as future NBA top-ten pick Rony Seikaly and his Syracuse Orangemen were ready to finish the Rams’ Cinderella Story in the second round.

Behind Seikaly’s 27 points, the Orangemen threatened, but a 29 point game by Tom Garrick gave the Rams the 97-94 victory. Rhode Island advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in program history.

Alas the story ended in the Sweet Sixteen as the Danny Ferry-led Duke team was too much for Rhode Island that year, but Christian experienced something he’d carry with him into his coaching career: leading a mid-major team to a place it had never been.

It’s that knowledge Christian possesses that allows him to fill the vacancy left by former Ohio Basketball head coach John Groce, who had two NCAA Tournament appearances in four seasons.

When Christian was named the Ohio coach, questions arose as to his record at Texas Christian University. After six straight seasons of 20-plus wins at Kent State, Christian had zero such seasons at TCU.

It is the team that Christian inherits that separates Ohio from TCU.

Last season, the Bobcats went through a similar situation to the one Christian experienced at Rhode Island. They shocked the college basketball world with wins over Michigan and South Florida, but their Cinderella Story fell just short against a loaded North Carolina team.

Ohio finds itself in a great position heading into this season. The Bobcats return 12 letter winners and all five starters, including point guard and two-time All-MAC First Team honoree D.J. Cooper.

“When you return that much experience, you're able to withstand the times that are good and the times that are bad,” Christian said. “More important than the players returning is the culture they have developed. They have a winning culture. They understand what it takes to win.”

In Christian’s two previous coaching positions, he had experience with all-conference point guards.

The Golden Flashes had two MAC Players of the Year – DeAndre Haynes and Al Fisher – during the Christian era. He also led the Golden Flashes to a nine seed in the NCAA Tournament, the highest in program history.

In his tenure at TCU, Christian also had a point guard, Hank Thorns, Jr., who made the All-Mountain West first team. Christian sees several similarities between Thorns and Cooper.

“I think both (Thorns and Cooper) are big game type players. Both of those guys are capable of making big shots,” Christian said. “Both of them have great vision on the floor, both natural point guards. In that perspective, they're similar.”

As the highly anticipated season approaches, Cooper is in the national spotlight. He recently competed against some of the best guards in the nation this offseason while attending Chris Paul’s CP3 Elite Guard Camp.

“It was good to see where I'm at, where I stand, among the best point guards in the country,” Cooper said. “It gave me a lot of confidence to bring my game up.”

Jason King of recently put Cooper in the honorable mention of his point guard rankings, putting him among the top 15 in the nation. The high expectations placed on Cooper by the media and fans are being brought back down to earth by Christian, though.

“I think it's hard to place individual expectations on a guy,” Christian said. “I expect (Cooper) to be a great leader. I expect him to be a great teammate and do the things he does really well. There's areas of the game he wants to improve in. We talked about them, and we're going to work on them.”

This offseason has been a transition for both Christian and the team. Christian is installing his basketball philosophy, but maintaining the tradition the team has created.

“(The transition) has been good. It's been different, but it's been a good different,” Cooper said. “Guys have been getting used to the coaches, coaching staff and the way they want things. It's been a good transition for us.”

When Ohio raises the Sweet Sixteen banner Nov. 10 in the Convocation Center, it will be a subtle reminder of where Cooper and Christian have been and where they want to be in March. A conference championship must come first, though.

“I don't even talk about the Sweet Sixteen. That's a tournament. You have to win a lot of games to get a chance to play in it,” Christian said. “We don't even worry about it. We don't even talk about it. You start thinking about what's going to happen in March, you don't get to March.”

Christian knows how to reach the Sweet Sixteen, as does Cooper. With their combination, they’re hoping to take the Bobcats to a place they’ve never been: beyond the Sweet Sixteen. But under Christian’s guidance, they won’t worry about that until March.