By John Shinn
NORMAN — You did not have to be a World Series of Poker champion to read what Oklahoma guard Isaiah Cousins was going through during his last trip to Lubbock, Texas.
The slumped shoulders and sigh that came over his face after Texas Tech’s Josh Gray’s steal and layup with about 10 minutes left in the game was easy to read.
OU coach Lon Kruger yanked the then-freshman point guard out of the game and went with senior Sam Grooms the rest of the season.
If you’re looking for a low point in Cousins’ basketball career, going scoreless and committing four turnovers against one assist in just 10 minutes, Feb. 20, 2013, at United Spirit Arena was it.
“It was a tough game because I didn’t play really good and probably my worst game of the year,” Cousins admitted.
Building him back up was a project his teammates undertook immediately. They felt they had to. Cousins is unique on OU’s roster. The New York native is a long way from home. Family and friends are a phone call away. But that shoulder to lean on after a tough performance isn’t there. Teammates have to serve that purpose.
It greatly helped that OU easily won the game, 86-71. But getting Cousins’ confidence back up seemed more important.
“He just lost a little focus in that game and he lost a little fight in the game,” OU guard Je’lon Hornbeak said. “Me and (OU guard Buddy Hield) talked to him. We told him no matter what we were here for him and we were still his brothers and he was gonna get through it. Don’t quit on us.”
Cousins clearly didn’t.
Eleven months have passed since OU’s last visit to United Spirit Arena. Once again, Cousins is in the starting lineup. Only this time, he comes averaging 10.6 points a game and 4.4 rebounds an outing. The 25th-ranked Sooners (15-4, 4-2 Big 12) are a much-improved team and expect to show it when they face the Red Raiders (10-9, 2-4) at 3 p.m. today.
Cousins is arguably OU’s most improved player. One of the reasons is the lessons learned from last season.
In the offseason, Cousins became an absolute gym rat. He improved his shooting and ballhandling.
“He worked at it and battled it, but was never comfortable,” Kruger said about Cousins’ days as a point guard. “To his credit, he kept working at it.”
OU has put the hard work to better use this season. Cousins became a wing player this season with freshman Jordan Woodard and Hornbeak taking over the point guard.
It’s been liberating for Cousins.
“The role change freed me up kind of just to play more and have a mind free when you’re playing during the game,” Cousins said.
The point guard job isn’t for everyone. There are many that have the requisite skills. Displaying them while running an offense and doing it with a defender trying to glue himself to your chest thins out the herd considerably.
OU asked Cousins to do a little more when Hornbeak was injured for most of December. But for the most part, the coaching staff has asked him to score and defend.
Kruger saw the impact simplifying things could have for Cousins before the season began. A different player emerged during the exhibition trip to France and Belgium in August.
“He was much more aggressive, much more confident,” Kruger said.
Cousins scored 11 points on 4-for-6 shooting in Wednesday’s victory over TCU. It was the 10th time in 19 games he’s scored in double digits. For the season, he’s shooting 46.3 percent from the field and 42.6 percent from 3-point range. The assist-to-turnover ratio is close to even at 39-to-41.
All are night-and-day improvements over last season.
“He can score. He has a scorer’s mentality,” Kruger said. “I think we’ll see him continue to expand that part of his game. He’s hitting some 3s and some mid-range jumpers, which he shoots really well. I think we’ll see him get to the bucket a little more and draw more fouls and make more plays for others as he continues to gain confidence and expand his game.”
The potential for expansion seems limitless. The reason: when Cousins hit rock bottom 11 months ago against Texas Tech, he decided he wasn’t going to stay there.
“I’ve kind of matured this year,” he said. “People from last year kind of helped me, the coaches helped me a lot, even my teammates just told me move on, think of the next play, you don’t got to worry about the play before.”