When Ohio takes the court this November, there will be a new man running the point. After four years of D.J. Cooper, Bobcats fans must move on and embrace a new floor general.
Javarez 'Bean' Willis, a junior transfer form Texas Tech, is projected by many to be the heir to Cooper's throne when the 'Cats hit the floor this winter. He sat out the 2012-2013 season due to NCAA regulations, but is looking to show how he used that time away from the court to improve his game that was good enough to get him voted as the 20th best player in the Mid-American Conference before he ever even played a minute of MAC Basketball.
"I believe me redshirting probably was the best thing that ever happened to me to be honest with you," he said in his thick Louisiana drawl. "I was able to clear my head, take care of things off the court, take care of things in academics. I just had a lot of time to become who I wanted to be as a player."
Willis, a strong 6-foot point guard and stout defender, left Texas Tech following the 2011-2012 season, the first year under new head coach Billy Gillispie. At the time, not much was known as to why Willis and several other players were leaving—15 players wound up departing the program early, either through transferring or quitting—but eventually, prior to the start of his second season, and long after Willis transferred to Ohio University, allegations of player mistreatment by Gillispie hit the media, and amid controversy and health problems he resigned before the start of the 2012-2013 season. Willis has never addressed the issues, and doesn't want to dwell on the past now.
"I'm in the best shape I've ever been so I'm not trying to focus on the negative of being off a year. I'm just trying to look ahead. It's here now, so I'm just trying to be ready to play," he said."
During his two seasons in Lubbock, Texas, Willis supplanted himself as a lockdown defender. The nephew of NBA legend Karl Malone has the ability to cause opposing guards fits which earned him a starting job by his sophomore season, and he responded well. In 2011-2012, Willis was one of the lone bright spots on a team that went 8-23. He averaged 8 points, 2.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists and just under one steal a game playing primarily off the ball as a 2-guard.
But with a year spent on the sidelines, watching one of the greatest college point guards finish out his career, Willis says he has improved dramatically.
"Decision making. Ball handeling. I think everything.," he said when asked what aspects of his game he has improved. "I felt like I was already a fairly well defensive player. I think coming here I'm better now."
It's hard to imagine that he could be a better defender than Cooper, who finished his career with 321 steals, putting him at No. 18 on the all-time NCAA steals leader board, but many who have been watching him closely in practice over the past year have said exactly that.
While he's in a competition with Stevie Taylor for the starting job, it's hard to imagine a player who could be a better defender than a point guard whose name is in the record books not on the court as often as possible. Besides, Willis has a decent shot too. Unlike Cooper, who was notorious for taking deep, sloppy threes, and trying to carry a game completely by himself when things went bad, Willis is a calmer player. HE looks more reserved on the court, and certainly makes better shooting decisions, even if he doesn't have the ability to hit uncanny half court shots. He isn't the facilitator that Cooper was —hell, only 11 college point guards in history were better than D.J.——but he seems to have a level of sophistication and poise to his game that will make him a valuable asset in Jim Christian's offense.
Plus he has a natural ability to lead. Already Willis has become one of the vocal leaders on the team, setting high standards for a squad that returns just six players that saw action a season ago. The fresh faces and loss of three of Ohio's best players ever are no reason for the 'Cats to accept a down year according to Willis.
"Me honestly, I won't allow us to go back. I think, I honestly think we're going to move forward. That's what I'm anticipating," he said matter-of-factly.