New York State of Mind

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Athletics Communications
By Athletics Communications
University of Oklahoma
JANUARY 16, 2015

By John Rohde


Isaiah Cousins traveled 1,500 miles to play basketball for the Oklahoma Sooners and when he arrived three years ago as a freshman, his new teammates quickly noticed he wasn’t from around these parts.

Every ounce of Cousins screamed East Coast hoops. His voice, his confidence, his attitude, his body language. His game always was in attack mode, and no one was going to convince him to do otherwise. Such traits tend to reveal themselves when you’re born and raised in Mount Vernon, N.Y., located roughly 10 miles north of the Bronx in New York City.

Every ounce of Cousins screamed East Coast hoops. His voice, his confidence, his attitude, his body language. His game always was in attack mode, and no one was going to convince him to do otherwise.

“He had that New York mentality,” explained roommate Buddy Hield, who hails from the Bahamas and flew 1,400 miles himself to play for the Sooners.

Though Hield smiled when he said it, he couldn’t exactly explain this New York state of mind Cousins possessed.

OU coach Lon Kruger laughed when told Hield’s choice of words, but Kruger himself also could not specifically define Cousins’ demeanor. “Oh, that could probably be a range of things,” said a still chuckling Kruger. “I’d hate to venture to what Buddy had in mind saying that.”

Assistant coach Steve Henson essentially pleaded the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination, but fellow assistant Lew Hill had no trouble explaining the East Coast mentality.

Hill was an all-state player himself at Mount Vernon High School in the early 1980s. He earned All-America honors while winning a national title at San Jacinto (Texas) Junior College and later was an All-Missouri Valley Conference pick after transferring to Wichita State.

Mount Vernon has produced several notable players, including guard Gus Williams of USC and younger brother Ray Williams of Minnesota, Earl Tatum of Marquette, Rodney and Scooter McCray of Louisville and Ben Gordon of UConn. The school also has offered actors Denzel Washington and Art Carney, television icon Dick Clark, Baltimore Orioles great Ken Singleton and rapper Heavy D.

Asked to describe Mount Vernon basketball, Hill didn’t hesitate. “It’s defense. It’s tradition. It’s pride. It’s winning. It’s all the above,” Hill said. “We’re from one place. In New York City, everybody would be from a different borough and a different school, but we’re from Mount Vernon. That’s what makes it unique, makes it special with all the state titles, with the NBA guys, with the guys who went to college and were successful. It’s a great basketball place and it’s always had great coaching.”

Hill said Cousins was a late bloomer in terms of “just getting it all together. The talent was there, but it just wasn’t all together. He put it together his senior year (at Mount Vernon) – the shooting, the ballhandling, the knowledge of the game. It all just came together. Some people develop early. Some people develop now. He’s just coming together.”

In his senior season, Cousins was named New York’s Section 1 “Mr. Basketball,” averaging 15.8 points. 4.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 3.0 steals while leading his team to a 23-3 record and a second straight New York Public High School Athletic Association Class AA state championship.

Year-by-Year Improvement
Category Fr. So. Jr.
Points Per Game 2.7 11.0 12.8
Rebounds Per Game 2.0 4.2 5.9
FG Percentage .279 .441 .460
3-Point FG Percentage .250 .404 .456

Cousins wouldn’t be with the Sooners if it weren’t for Hill, who was highly influential during the recruiting process. Cousins visited Norman less than 24 hours after his final high school game, immediately chose OU and cancelled visits with his four other finalists – UConn, Virginia Tech, Xavier and Dayton.

“I think it helped a lot, with Lew walking in the same shoes Isaiah did, growing up in Mount Vernon, knowing the people in Mount Vernon, knowing the transformation Isaiah would have to encounter,” Mount Vernon coach Bob Cimmino said after Cousins committed to the Sooners. “I feel really good about it. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on coach Lew Hill to make Isaiah special.”

You won’t find many quotes from Cousins in this story because he doesn’t tend to say much to outsiders. Feel free to look, but there’s not much there:

“I really concentrated on getting stronger and becoming more athletic (this offseason) and I really tried to be more aggressive.”

“The season’s going good. It could be better. It always could be better.”

“It’s good that everybody (in OU’s starting lineup) can score. When somebody’s hot, that’s good for us.”

“I just leave it all on the court. That’s all I do.”

“I stretch more now. I never used to stretch.” 

“I just have more confidence in my shot this year.”

“It’s fun. It’s exciting and it’s a pleasure to be a part of this team.”

cousins attack paint

Cousins is a combo guard who started at point guard out of necessity his freshman season, during which he played in all 32 games and averaged 15.9 minutes. His struggles were easily visible in the numbers – 2.7 points; 2.0 rebounds; 1.6 assists; 1.3 turnovers; 27.9 percent from the field; 25.0 percent on 3-pointers; and 68.4 percent from the free throw line.

“It was totally unfair,” Kruger admitted of using Cousins at the point, “but we had a need. He battled and struggled and competed like crazy, but he wasn’t ever totally comfortable with the results.”

With essentially no place to go but up, Cousins went vertical his sophomore season to his more natural wing position while true freshman Jordan Woodard impressively manned the point. Cousins started all 33 games; averaged 29.5 minutes; 11.0 points; 4.2 rebounds; 2.1 assists; 1.2 steals; shot 44.1 percent from the field; 40.4 percent from 3-point range; and 80.4 percent at the line.

Though he continues to evolve away from his East Coast upbringing, Cousins still clings to an attitude. “He’s always been a fairly confident guy, and that continues to grow,” Henson said with a smile.

With the No. 18-ranked Sooners ready to face No. 24-ranked Oklahoma State at 6 p.m. Saturday at Lloyd Noble Center, most of Cousins’ averages during his junior season have risen even higher at 31.8 minutes; 12.8 points; 5.9 rebounds; shooting 46.0 percent from the field; and 45.6 percent on 3-pointers.

cousins shooting

Cousins leads the Big 12 at 52.6 percent shooting on 3-pointers in conference games. Not bad for someone who shot line-drive jumpers as a freshman that had no chance of ever getting a friendly bounce off the rim.

After working tirelessly on his shooting mechanics, Cousins’ jumpers now float with hope of getting a shooter’s roll. “The hours of mechanics has helped him tremendously,” Henson said. “He took a huge step from his freshman to his sophomore year with his mechanics.”

Hard work has transformed Cousins’ game more than anything. He habitually is the first to arrive at the practice gym each day, often is the last to leave, and he’s not alone. Several teammates are alongside voluntarily working on their own games.

“They’re not just in there shooting set shots, either,” Henson said. “They’re in there working. I’ve never seen anything like it – ever. There’s probably never been a night when they’re not in there. A couple of weeks ago, my son wanted to come over here and shoot around on a Saturday or Sunday night. Isaiah was there. TaShawn (Thomas) was there. I don’t know if I’ve ever stopped by the office without somebody being there. We’ve never, ever had it like this.”

Particularly pleasing to Kruger and Co., this work ethic is not at the behest of the coaching staff. “It’s all on their own,” Henson said.

Cousins began doing early workouts while in high school, a 5:30 a.m. ritual he did alongside an assistant coach. “That’s one of the things while we were recruiting him that we liked about him,” Kruger said. “He loves being in the gym.”

He’s a workaholic. If I don’t see him at home, I know I’m going to find him at the gym. It’s like his second home. Sometimes he sleeps here. That’s how dedicated he is.
– Buddy Hield

Hill isn’t the least bit surprised at Cousins’ no-nonsense approach. “He’s working. That’s why you see the improvement,” Hill said. “One of my favorite sayings is “Basketball gives you what you give it.” Basketball is starting to give him what he gives it. He’s loving it and it’s starting to show love back to him.”Much of Cousins’ progress has come naturally with maturity, though quite an unnatural challenge came last offseason.

While back home in Mount Vernon after the spring semester, Cousins was a bystander during a gang-related drive-by shooting and was struck by a bullet from a block away. The injury was not life-threatening and did not require surgery. Cousins was out of the hospital and recovering at home the next day. He returned to Norman on June 8 and started doing limited basketball work. The bullet remains in his left shoulder.

(You can read about the incident in a story that previously appeared on SoonerSports.com.)

Hield shakes his head while discussing Cousins’ relentless determination. “He’s in the gym more than anybody,” Hield said of his roommate. “He’s a workaholic. If I don’t see him at home, I know I’m going to find him at the gym. It’s like his second home. Sometimes he sleeps here. That’s how dedicated he is. I work hard, but I’ve never seen anybody work as hard as he does. I’ve never seen anybody spend that much time in the gym in my life.”

There’s still a New Yorker lurking around inside the 6-foot-4, 192-pound Cousins, and that’s a good thing. 

“He’s just different now,” Hield said. “He’s more calm and collected. He’s more focused, in my opinion. He hasn’t just worked on his game, he’s worked on his attitude. He used to be all up-tight. You know how it is. He’s so different now, so focused, so determined. His eyes are always on something. He’s fighting for something and he’s not going to let you take it from him. I like that about him.”

 

About John Rohde
rohde mugJohn Rohde is a respected name on the Oklahoma sports scene and will provide regular features for SoonerSports.com. Voted Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year five times, Rohde has covered OU football and basketball, the Oklahoma City Thunder, OKC/New Orleans Hornets, Dallas Cowboys, Texas Rangers, the Final Four, Masters and PGA Tour. He spent over 26 years for The Oklahoman, serving as a columnist and beat writer. He can be heard on 107.7 The Franchise, the flagship station for OU Athletics weekdays from 5:30-9 a.m.

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