“Bad for basketball.”
That’s allegedly how one out-of-state assistant coach in the postgame handshake line described Cooper’s methodical style of play. The Jaguars had just handed his team a loss in the semifinals of the Traditional Bank Holiday Classic at Lexington Catholic.
The final score of that game was 78-65, featuring the most points Cooper has scored in a game this season. It was the eighth-highest point total the Jaguars have accumulated in the program’s 10 seasons of existence.
Cooper, ranked sixth overall in the first Cantrall Ratings of the season, averages 63.5 points per game. That’s the lowest amount among teams in the top 20, but also right in line with its average last season, when Cooper qualified for its first Sweet Sixteen and went on to make the championship game.
Sixty-three points a night won’t get you on any top-20 stats leader lists, but playing lockdown defense will. Cooper (14-3) allows only 49.3 points per game, third fewest in the state, and leads a handful of state contenders that boast a top-10 scoring defense. Opposing teams shoot only 39.8 percent against the Jaguars, who connect on 48.6 percent of their own shot attempts.
“I think people get it mixed up because what happens is we sit down and guard people in the half court and teams know that, so what they do is run their offense,” said Tim Sullivan, who’s been the head coach at Cooper since it opened for the 2008-09 school year. “Our goal is to keep the ball out of the paint and not to gamble. Now, if you’re loose with it, we’re trying to take it. But, what happens is, that turns into a grind-it-out type of game.”
Is that “bad for basketball?”
“Some people might think it’s bad for basketball but, I mean, it’s winning basketball,” said senior Adam Kunkel. “We win. That’s what we do. We pride ourselves on the defensive end.”
“You do what you’ve got to do to win.”
Cooper’s players are no different than those on other teams that have grown up watching up-tempo, free-flowing offenses in the NBA — they like to run.
“Our guys love playing fast, and we’re gonna play fast,” Sullivan said. “We want to score quick, but we’re not gonna do it at the expense of taking bad shots. And there’s a right way to play and a wrong way to play, and the right way to play is to try and get a great shot.
“Now when we get teams that take quick shots, if we’re doing our job and boxing out, we’re going the other way. We want to play fast if it lends itself but we’re not gonna take bad shots.”
The Jaguars frequently find great shots, especially from three-point territory, from where they shoot 42.6 percent as a team. Leading the way in that category is senior Chris McNeil, who’s knocking down 52.8 percent of his long-range attempts this season — nearly 20 percentage points higher than a year ago.
“He’s really taken on a different role this year and it’s really fun to watch him do it,” Sullivan said. “We tell him when he’s open, bang it. ‘Be aggressive and do what you’ve got to do.’”
Opposing defenses hone in on Kunkel, a Belmont signee who’s among the leaders for this season’s Mr. Basketball award. He’s 6-foot-2 with a slight 170-pound frame — adding weight has never been easy for him, Sullivan said — but is a strong shooter with a bulldog mentality.
That was never more evident than when the Jaguars played Rocky River (N.C.) in the TBHC finals. Kunkel slammed into a hard screen early in the second quarter of that game and stayed on the ground for about a minute as blood gushed onto the floor. He’d broken his nose but wasn’t sidelined for long; Kunkel returned to the contest toward the end of the second quarter and ended up winning tournament MVP honors for the second year in a row after leading Cooper to back-to-back titles.
“What Adam has is that toughness where he plays for 32 minutes and when he’s on the floor, he’s playing 100 miles an hour,” Sullivan said. “And that’s the toughness that winners have and the great ones have.”
The most likely road block to a repeat trip to Rupp Arena will be Covington Catholic, ranked fourth in the first Cantrall Ratings of the year and the coaches’ preseason pick to win the 9th Region.
Both teams received an unexpected prelude to their hotly anticipated regular-season meeting at NKU’s BB&T Arena on Friday when they met in the King of the Bluegrass tournament in December. Cooper won, 62-59, and extended its win streak against the Colonels to three games.
“We know who they are, they know who we are,” Sullivan said. “Scott Ruthsatz and I, we talked before the game and I said, ‘Coach, everyone wants to know if we’re gonna try and hide anything from you’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Sully, you can tell me what we’re gonna do and I can tell you what you’re gonna do,’ and I said, ‘You’re exactly right, Coach.’”
Stoking the flames of the rivalry is its potential bearing on the Mr. Basketball discussion this year, as CovCath (12-4) also boasts a worthy candidate in Iowa signee CJ Fredrick.
“It’s great for basketball. It’s great for headlines. It’s great for everything,” Sullivan said of Mr. Basketball talk. “ ... Our guy, Adam, his ultimate goal is not to win Mr. Basketball. If he does it, that’s beautiful. His teammates trust him and probably want him to do it more than he does.
“He just wants to win. He wants to try to get on the floor at Rupp again and win.”
Returning to Rupp is on the minds of every Cooper player who returned from the Jaguars’ 67-56 loss to Bowling Green in last year’s finals. Braydon Runion, a senior, said the team renamed its texting group chat to “Redemption” in honor of their state-championship mission.
“We have to show up every day whether we’re playing the big dogs or the teams you should beat by 40,” Runion said. “It doesn’t always work like that. You’ve just got to stay focused.”
“Focused” might be the best word to describe Cooper’s style of play: It takes focus to milk a minute off the clock while you deliberately whip the ball in and out of the paint searching for an open shot. It takes just as much focus to stay committed defensively while the opponent tries to do the same to you. Focus prevents a chess match from transforming into a track meet — until you’re ready to run, of course.
“If we want to play fast, we’ll play fast,” Sullivan said. “If we want to play slow, we play slow.”
If dictating the terms of engagement for a given game is bad for basketball, then Cooper’s gonna keep on being bad. Good things will keep happening for it more often than not.