On the rare occasions Isaiah Cousins returns home to Mount Vernon, he’s apt to land in an open gym at 100 California Rd. Years earlier, long before he became the point guard for a potential National Champion, his intensity had lorded over the school’s famed court. That Cousins spent every waking moment striving to be the best. College stardom has only hardened his mentality.
Despite his evolution into an all-Big 12 talent and likely future pro, Cousins hasn’t changed.
“He’s like the peacock,” said Mount Vernon’s Bob Cimmino, whose offseason pickup games attract players past and present. “He wants to show his feathers and show that he’s the best. If you’re not that good, he’ll leave you alone. But if you’re good, he’s going to come at you.”
On Saturday in Houston, it will be Villanova on the defensive. The Sooner senior and his team will meet the Wildcats for a berth in Monday’s national championship.
Cousins will not only spend the night with the ball in his hands, he will do so with supreme confidence. Isaiah Cousins always believed he was the best, and that has been the driving force behind his ascendance. On the verge of playing in the Final Four, he is ready to prove it.
“Talking to him this week, I never heard him sound too tense about it,” said Rashad “Shotty” Lewis, Cousins’ mentor and a former Mount Vernon star in his own right. “In games of high magnitude, everybody’s human and some nerves will run through everyone’s veins. But the guy’s preparation for the game is through the roof. When you go into a game, what makes you jittery is a lack of preparation. A guy like him, 24/7 in the gym, I don’t see the emotions affecting him.”
Perhaps no one knows Cousins better than Lewis. Beginning Cousins’ junior year, the two bonded through a maniacal workout regimen. Boxing and weights in the morning. Practice in the afternoon. Swimming after practice. More basketball after that.
Lewis, who played two seasons at Manatee (Fla.) Community College, ran through most of those workouts with Cousins, quickly earning the respect of his hard-to-please pupil. In Lewis, Cousins, who grew up without a dad, found a role model driven by a similar fuel. They may have looked or sounded angry, but they channeled that emotion in a relentless pursuit of improvement.
“We clicked naturally; there was never a delay,” Lewis said. “His mentality, his aggressiveness, his passion for the game, I understood that. I played similar. That gritty style, that was me. He’s not really expressive to most people and when most people are in his world, they’re forced to speculate. I’m not like that. I can understand him. He has a passion. He just played with that fire.”
Lewis harnessed Cousins’ work ethic to such a degree that Cousins exploded as a recruit his senior year. He led Mount Vernon to a state title and then signed with Oklahoma that spring. It was a complete transformation from the year prior when he was a role player rolling his eyes at low-major offers.
Shortly after Cousins arrived at Oklahoma, he actually called Lewis to complain that the team didn’t work hard enough. While Lewis conveyed the unusual complaint to the coaching staff, Cousins began to bond with a like-minded teammate in Buddy Hield. The fun-loving sharpshooter from the Bahamas quickly formed an unlikely kinship with the gritty guard from Mount Vernon.
Cimmino believes the relationship has been beneficial to Cousins.
“I think it takes all the pressure off of Isaiah,” Cimmino said. “I don’t think he has to have thoughts that he’s necessarily ‘the man.’ Buddy is so ridiculous with his scoring and shooting ability. I think the better Buddy got in the four years, the more relaxed Isaiah’s gotten.”
Hield is now a Wooden Award finalist as a senior, but Cousins has accomplished a rare feat during his last hurrah in college. After playing the last two seasons off the ball, he switched responsibilities with fellow senior Jordan Woodard and returned to the point.
Cousins has redefined his game as a facilitator, averaging a team-best 4.6 assists to go with 12.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. All three are career highs, and Cousins has still maintained the improved jump shot that made him successful his first three years in Norman.
Of course, the whole transition was years in the making. Cousins never worried whether or not he would be successful. He had put the work in and knew he was good enough.
“Before he met Buddy Hield, before he knew Buddy Hield, everything he’s doing, this is what we were doing on this side of the world,” Lewis said. “There were no days off. When he comes home, he’s not going on vacation. He’s just never stopped.”