WKU Pro Day

Western Kentucky guard Kenny Cooper (left) shoots against guard Taveion Hollingsworth on Oct. 9, 2019, during Pro Day at E.A. Diddle Arena.

When Carson Williams came to Western Kentucky from Northern Kentucky, he had to sit out the 2018-19 season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules.

The now-redshirt senior forward worked on his game, and ended up being one of the most impactful Hilltoppers on last season’s 20-10 team by starting 29 games and averaging 14 points and 6.6 rebounds.

Now, Williams is seeing the same type of thing from Kenny Cooper.

“We were both in the same situation, sitting out a year. I had a lot of things I needed to work on, expanding my game. I used the whole year to kind of work on that, work on my outside shooting and things I hadn’t done in the past,” Williams said Tuesday. “I’ve seen a similar type thing with Kenny. The proof is in what he’s doing right now.”

Cooper was ruled ineligible last season after transferring from Lipscomb, but the 6-foot guard from Nashville is now ready to help the Hilltoppers when they tip off the season Nov. 25 in Nebraska at the Golden Window Classic.

“It’s been a growing process,” Cooper said. “Coach (Rick) Stansbury is an awesome coach and he’s taught me a lot about rethinking the point guard position and really stepping into that leadership role that I really didn’t have to step into at Lipscomb. Last year was great for me, just learning and getting better in areas I needed to, so I’m really excited to showcase what I can do this year.”

There was belief at the beginning of last season Cooper would become immediately eligible to play for the Hilltoppers in the 2019-20 season on the grounds that his former coach, Casey Alexander, left for the same position at Belmont. The ruling came down Dec. 10 that his appeal had been denied.

Cooper had been recruited by Alexander since his sophomore year at Franklin Road Academy, where he was a two-time Tennessee Sports Writers Association Division II-A All-State selection and a Mr. Basketball finalist. As a college junior, he averaged 9.8 points, 4.5 assists and two steals per game and led the Bison to the NIT semifinals. Cooper announced his decision to leave Lipscomb five days after Alexander left, and signed with WKU in April 2019.

He appeared in 100 games at Lipscomb and started all but one game the two seasons before his departure. In his three seasons, Cooper averaged 8.9 points and had 381 assists to just 238 turnovers.

Cooper is hoping to bring those strengths to a veteran WKU team.

“For me, it’s just being a leader, passing and being a good on-ball defender, being the head of the snake, applying the pressure every night, bringing it every night, being vocal, being the top dog out there, being the quarterback and having everybody in a position to be successful,” Cooper said.

With Cooper unable to play at the start of last season, Taveion Hollingsworth assumed point guard duties. The only other point guard was reclassified freshman Jordan Rawls, who was inserted into a starting role Jan. 9 at UAB with Cam Justice out with a back injury. Hollingsworth averaged 12.7 points per game before that while serving as the team’s primary point guard, and finished the season averaging 16.6.

“Finding out that he couldn’t play last year was pretty tough on us because it led up to me being point guard. Sometimes it’s good, but sometimes you just need somebody real out there,” Hollingsworth said Tuesday. “Jordan stepped up for us last year when Coop was ineligible and that helped out a lot.

“Coop in practice, he shows a lot of point guard-like things. He tries to be a floor general and he runs the plays, he knows what everybody has to do, so when the game time comes hopefully that’ll work out for us.”

After his appeal for immediate eligibility was denied, Cooper said he was trying to be the best scout player he could be, while also working with Hollingsworth and Rawls to help them out however he could.

“Kenny’s an older guy, so I’ve learned stuff from him. We communicate a lot,” Rawls said Tuesday. “We’re both at the point guard position, so we just try to compete every day to make each other better.”

Cooper watched from the sideline as WKU battled through adversity, and not just with his ineligibility. Star center Charles Bassey sustained a season-ending injury Dec. 7 against Arkansas, and Justice continued to deal with the back injury.

“It was just tough knowing what I could bring to the table and how good we could be as a unit. I felt like I could have been a puzzle piece that could have helped us in certain situations,” Cooper said. “It was just tough to not see myself being utilized where I could be used, but at the same time, I saw areas where I could get better and I saw areas where I could improve. That’s just kind of the mindset I took into it – although I can’t play, it’s alright. I’ve got things I can work on.”

The Hilltoppers battled through games with its “outside dogs” mentality and eventually earned the No. 2 seed in Conference USA, but the league’s tournament was canceled March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and WKU was unable to try to claim the title and earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament, which was later canceled.

“Our guys felt that pain and I felt that pain with them. Practicing every day, I felt I was a part of the team and I practiced every day, showed up with the same mentality,” Cooper said. “I was hurt just like they were, and that fueled me this summer too and this spring when we were working out, and I was just ready to go again and ready to get back and have a chance to win some hardware.”

Stansbury has seen the improvements in Cooper’s game, and the point guard will now be available to join a veteran team that, for the third consecutive season, has been picked to claim the C-USA title.

“He’ll be a fifth-year guy and brings valuable playing experience,” Stansbury said in a July 28 Zoom with reporters. “Just having him last year in practice and what he was able to do – I think there’s no question he’s gotten better in what he was able to do.”{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.

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