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Here’s why Kenny Cooper’s eligibility is Western Kentucky’s key to an NCAA berth

Even with four-star prospect Jordan Rawls reclassifying, the Lipscomb transfer’s defense and pass-first instincts make him the perfect point guard for the Hilltoppers’ loaded roster.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Round - Charlotte Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

To say things are looking up for the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers would be an understatement.

Fresh off a 20-14 season that only saw one senior play more than 10 games, Rick Stansbury and company managed to keep Charles Bassey in Bowling Green for another year, snagged IUPUI grad transfer Camron Justice and rounded out the roster by getting four-star point guard Jordan Rawls to reclassify to 2019.

Lost amongst the shuffle, the Hilltoppers also gained transfer point guard Kenny Cooper, who averaged 9.8 PPG, 4.5 APG and 2.0 SPG on Lipscomb’s teams that made the NCAA Tournament and NIT over the past two seasons. Believe it or not, the Hilltoppers’ offseason can get even better if Cooper is granted immediate eligibility for next season.

As a rising senior, Cooper will have to sit out in 2019-20. Seeing as the Bisons’ head coach Casey Alexander left to take the Belmont job, the Western Kentucky camp seems to be optimistic about Cooper’s chances at playing this fall, according to head coach Rick Stansbury’s remarks in Brad Stephens’ Bowling Green Daily News article from May 20:

“We feel good about (Cooper) applying for his waiver and we feel good about the waiver,” Stansbury said. “These kids nowadays, these waivers, they pass them out like Halloween candy a little bit. There are some other mitigating factors in his situation too. So we feel really good about him.”

Since then, however, the NCAA has been quiet on Cooper’s status. It’s anyone’s guess as to where Cooper’s eligibility stands for next season, but considering the NCAA granted waivers on the first day of the season last year, he has a shot.

If Cooper suits up for Western Kentucky this November, then the Hilltoppers will be not only clear favorites for the Conference USA title, but also a strong candidate to win a couple games in March. While Western Kentucky is loaded on paper, they’ll need an experienced, steady and selfless point guard in order to turn its intriguing group of offensive stars into a cohesive unit. Cooper is that guy.

Here are a few things the Lipscomb transfer can bring to Western Kentucky:

Unselfish play

Cooper doesn’t have to have the ball in his hand all the time to be effective, which works for the Hilltoppers. WKU returns four double-digit scorers in Bassey (14.6 PPG), Taveion Hollingsworth (14.4 PPG), Jared Savage (12.2 PPG) and Josh Anderson (12.1 PPG) — plus the aforementioned Justice (18.6 PPG, 35.2 3FG%). Someone has to get the ball to these scorers.

Court vision and patience are the senior’s calling cards. Standing at 6’0 with average speed and athleticism, Cooper doesn’t dazzle with otherworldly athleticism or jaw-dropping passes. But like all elite point guards, he is a master of pace. Usually Cooper puts the defense to sleep as the play develops, then pounces with either quick entry passes or by barreling towards the rim:

Naturally, Cooper excelled in transition, as he helped run one of the fastest teams in the country. The Bisons’ offensive possessions averaged 15.5 seconds last season and 15.3 in 2018, per KenPom — a far cry from the more pedestrian offense that the Hilltoppers ran last season. While this doesn’t mean Cooper is bringing Lipscomb’s playbook to Bowling Green, but it does mean that he’s comfortable playing against the likes of FIU, Marshall and UTSA — three C-USA teams that love pushing the pace.

Whenever the Bisons needed a quick bucket, Cooper was the one who sped them up. His quick reaction time and astute reads made teams pay in the NIT, where Cooper shredded teams like UNC Greensboro and Wichita State by simply dropping dimes above opponents’ heads as they ran back on defense:

Best of all, Cooper played quickly while making few mistakes. His meager 2.3 turnovers per game are good news for the Hilltoppers, who were in the bottom quartile in that category last season.

Scoring

Early in his career, Cooper struggled immensely from beyond the arc, connecting on a meager 25.6% of his threes as an underclassman. As a junior, that percentage spiked to 36%, but a moderate sample size of 86 shots. Considering he shared the court with Lipscomb’s all-time leading scorer in Garrison Mathews, the small sample size comes with a very understandable caveat. Lipscomb head coach Casey Alexander never asked Cooper to carry the offense; whenever he wasn’t distributing, he was the safety net. After all, it was Cooper who scored the Bisons’ final five points in our Game of the Year — even as Garrison Mathews and NC State guard Torin Dorn went supernova.

Defense

Of course, his value on offense would be nothing without some effort on defense. Thankfully for Western Kentucky, Cooper is one of the best mid-major perimeter defenders:

As he does on offense, Cooper relies on slower, smarter plays to excel on defense. He’s a crafty help defender and has disciplined hands on defense, making it no surprise that he was top 50 in steal percentage according to KenPom and T-Rank, while also having the sixth-highest career steal percentage in A-Sun history.

So, what’s the catch?

Eligibility questions aside, Cooper isn’t a perfect player. Look closely at his junior year statline, and it’s easy to argue his shortcomings were hidden by a good team, good-but-not-great competition and playing alongside a future pro in Mathews.

If anything, Cooper’s shortcomings become apparent when he tries doing too much. Sometimes he’ll get short-sighted by driving into the teeth of the defense, only to cough it up or get stripped by a help defender. Sometimes he’ll have lapses of time and score, like the time Wichita State’s Samajae Haynes-Jones baited him into a 10-second call while the Bisons clinged to a 67-64 lead with less than 30 seconds to play in the NIT semifinals.

But more often than not, he’ll struggle against more athletic backcourts: It’s no surprise that two of his worst turnover outings came against teams like Clemson (six) and Texas (five), while he shot a combined 2-20 from the field against Wichita State, SMU and Texas. Given Western Kentucky’s penchant for scheduling a plethora of high-majors in the non-conference, these trends don’t inspire confidence.

On the flipside, however, the Hilltoppers need Cooper to suit up this season. Without him, the options are the high-risk, high-reward freshman Jordan Rawls take the reins, or letting Taveion Hollingsworth run the point, which would essentially be putting the Hilltoppers back to square one. Neither option is as effective as putting a proven starter in a similar role and letting Rawls allow his game to grow.

For those who put stock in experience, Cooper’s NCAA and NIT experience makes him the Hilltoppers’ best option. As cliche as it sounds, Cooper knows his role. He doesn’t force the issue on offense; he knows precisely when to step in whenever the team needs him. On such a loaded roster like Western Kentucky’s, an unselfish distributor like Cooper is more important than a high-usage point guard. All the NCAA needs to do is let him play.