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January 24, 2014

Cousins hardwork turning into positive production

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Two days before No. 25 Oklahoma travels to Lubbock, Texas, to play the Red Raiders at the United Spirit Arena at 3 p.m. on Saturday, senior Tyler Neal dropped a nickname he and sophomore Ryan Spangler have for sophomore Isaiah Cousins.

They call him "Russ," a nod Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook. Like Westbrook, Cousins plays with edge.

Like Westbrook, he can get hot at any time. Like Westbrook, he has developed into a better player as sophomore than he was as a rookie.

SCOOPHD: SOPHOMORE GUARD ISAIAH COUSINS HIGHLIGHTS

video by Eddie Radosevich

"I think as hard as he works I think that's really bred confidence this year for him," Neal said. "I think that was a big part of his game last year, just kind of moving back and forth between two position, and he's been playing (shooting guard) this year, and that's really been helping us."

But it wasn't always that way, especially when the Sooners played Texas Tech last season. The last time Oklahoma played a basketball game in Lubbock, Texas, Cousins played one of the worst games of his still young career.

He started the game at point guard and was eaten up by then-Tech point guard Josh Gray. Cousins committed four turnovers and contributed just one assist, one steal, one rebound and zero points in 10 minutes on the court.

"He was pretty low," said OU coach Lon Kruger. "You don't see that happen very often."

Kruger and the team tried to pick Cousins up, but in the seven games following the game at Tech, Cousins managed a total of 10 points.

11 months later Cousins has become one of the Sooners better players. After averaging just 2.7 points and two boards per game last season, he's tripled his scoring output with 10.6 points and double his rebounding effort with 4.4 boards per game this year.

"I'm just more confident," Cousins said, "more confidence in the different role I play this year. Just getting in the gym and shooting has really helped a lot."

Last season Cousins played 15 games where he did not score. This season Cousins has scored in all 19 of Oklahoma's games with at least four points.

In a nail biter against Seton Hall, he dropped 19. In the Sooners' first signature win of the season against then-No. 9 Iowa State, he came up with 17.

During OU's European tour, Kruger noticed Cousins was maturing as a player.

"He was much more aggressive, much more confident over there," Kruger said. "So it's been kind of pretty steady progression, pretty clearly comfortable from the start really."

Cousins' ability to score on the wing has given the Sooners flexibility, speed and range in this fast-paced, run 'n' gun style they've been so successful with this season.

The 25th-ranked Sooners will face a better Red Raider team than they did last year. It's under new direction, headed in a new direction but still answering questions.

Tech is just one game above .500 (10-9, 2-4 Big 12) but sits just above No. 24 Baylor in the Big 12 standings. The Red Raiders lead the league in rebounding defense but rank ninth out of 10 in total rebounding.

They rank No. 1 in the Big 12 in free throw shooting -- just ahead of OU -- but rank eighth in turnover margin and ninth in assist-to-turnover ratio. Consistency is the issue for Tech, not talent and certainly not coaching with Tubby Smith leading the Red Raiders.

When they're on, the Red Raiders can knock off a top 25 program like they did when No. 12 Baylor traveled to Lubbock. They have won two of their last three and would like nothing better than another top 25 scalp to add to the pile.

"They've got veteran guys. They've got good size," Kruger said. "(Jordan) Tolbert, (Dejan) Kravic and (Jaye) Crockett -- that's a pretty good threesome there across the front line."

If Tech is still in the game with only a few minutes left on the clock, like Texas Christian was only three days ago, the Sooners might not escape what many think is a trap game.

Either way, the snare will be laid and waiting. OU will need its entire roster on alert, including Cousins.



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