COLUMBUS, Ohio – As a high school sophomore, it looked like Isaiah Cousins would follow the path of many of the kids Big Apple Buckets covers in the MAAC or NEC. His 6’3” body hadn’t quite filled out yet, and he happened to be on a loaded Mount Vernon squad that was loaded, so playing time was relatively limited.
But by the team college scouts saw him in his senior year, a list that included Manhattan, Iona, and Hofstra turned into UConn, Xavier, Dayton, Oklahoma, and Virginia Tech. Cousins wanted to get away from Mount Vernon and NYC, so in the end chose Oklahoma over Virginia Tech. Three years later, Cousins – known as one of the best defenders in the Big 12 – will take on Albany Friday night in the NCAA Tournament.
“I’ve never had a player who became such a hot commodity so fast,” Mount Vernon coach Mike Cimmino told the New York Post at the time. “Usually it’s a gradual rise.”
One of the big reasons Cousins ended up with the Sooners is assistant coach Lew Hill, another Mount Vernon graduate who went on to play for Wichita State in 1988 NCAA Tournament. Hill stayed in Wichita, eventually becoming an assistant to current Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger at UNLV and following him to Oklahoma.
“We’re starting to recruit more in the east now,” Hill said. “I think it’s hard when you’re trying to get established, but for the last three years we’ve been top 20, top 15 in this country, so now people are starting to take notice. We’re on TV quite a bit, and we’re trying to get one or two players every other year from the east to help us, and Isaiah has certainly helped us.”
It hasn’t been the smoothest of roads for Cousins in Norman. He started 14 games his freshman year, but his playing time diminished as the season progressed, averaging just 2.7 points per game. He was arrested for a DUI in the offseason between his freshman and sophomore years.
But in an era where transfers seemingly occur with regularity, Cousins stuck it out at Oklahoma. He ended up starting all 33 games for the Sooners in 2013-14, scoring 11.0 points per game, shooting better than 40% from behind the three-point arc, and and 1.2 steals per game as well. Oklahoma finished 12-6 in the Big 12 but lost as a No. 5 seed in overtime to North Dakota St. in the NCAA Tournament.
“It wasn’t really as tough as you’d think,” Cousins said. “I’m a Mount Vernon guy. We can adapt anywhere. Coach Hill was a big help, but sometimes in college you have to lean your own way. He’s still here to guide me with certain things, because you never know everything.”
Unfortunately while home in Mount Vernon last summer, Cousins was shot when a stray bullet from a gang fight he had no part in hit him. Luckily, it was just a superficial wound to his shoulder and other than a small scar, he was fine by the time he returned to school in the fall.
This season, Cousins was an honorable mention All-Big 12 selection, averaging 12.2 ppg to go along with 45.4% three-point shooting and 4.6 rebounds per game.
Although not among the NCAA favorites, as a No. 3 seed (Villanova and Virginia are the top two seeds in their East bracket) Oklahoma can certainly make a long run if things break right. If they don’t, if Big 12 Player of the Year Buddy Hield doesn’t declare for the NBA, the Sooners could be set up as one of the top teams in the nation in Cousins’ senior season.
“It’s exciting, I’m having fun with these guys,” Cousins said. “We’re a good team and I have good teammates that help me.”