Tennessee State hoops better because of recruiting luck with Covington

Thursday, February 2, 2012 at 10:52pm

Dumb luck.

Well, maybe not dumb. But John Cooper definitely feels luck was on his side.

Barely into his new post as Tennessee State’s head basketball coach, Cooper received a tip from then-assistant Dana Ford about a 6-foot-9 post player with long-range shooting skills in a Chicago suburb.

Cooper and his assistants scooted up to the Windy City. And, in three days, they were sold on Robert Covington.

“I didn’t take the job until April. I had never seen him,” Cooper recalled. “Then we go see him and he works out. We like him. We might as well take him if he can shoot a ball. It is an inexact science. I’ve recruited guys for a year and a half, two years. They get to your place and they don’t pan out. You recruit a kid three days, seven days and look what you get.

"And what a jewel of a kid.”

Three years later, that kid is at the forefront of a Tennessee State team flirting with its first winning season in 16 years. The lanky and lean Covington, listed at 204 pounds, leads the Tigers with 17.5 points and 7.8 rebounds, which is second-best in the Ohio Valley Conference.

“We got lucky, man,” Cooper said, shaking his head. “We got a good player. We got lucky and sometimes that it is what it takes.”

Mulling over offers from nearby Ball State and far off Sacramento State, Covington remembers returning from his visit to TSU and telling his mother, “I found my school.”

“They came and recruited me and told me, ‘I’m not going to guarantee you playing time. I’m not going to guarantee you anything. You got to come in and work hard,’ ” said the native of Bellwood, Ill., and one of four TSU players from the Chicago area. “I was sold on it.” 

During the last three seasons, Covington has been the measure of consistency for a TSU program trying to return to brighter days.

As a freshman, he led the Tigers in scoring and rebounding and was named to the OVC’s All-Newcomer Team. He squashed the chance of a sophomore slump in 2010-11, averaging 13.4 points. The second-team All-OVC selection grabbed a team-high 7.5 rebounds per game and registered eight double-doubles.

He has six double-doubles this season, which has a month remaining.

Covington has been a beast not only down low but outside too. While he possesses the athleticism to sky high for a dunk or rebound, he also can shoot the 3. He ranks fourth in the OVC in 3-point shooting percentage (42.9) and drilled a personal-best seven against Morehead State on Jan. 11. The sharpshooting contributed to a career-high 30 points, a mark he matched just two games later at Austin Peay.

“He shoots the ball at a high clip,” Cooper said. “One thing about Rob, he is unselfish. He is not a selfish kid at all. When he gets 30 it doesn’t matter. He is one of those teammates you can play with him. Just because he gets his, you don’t worry about that. He is not a distraction to the rest of the group.”

Instead, Covington is contributing to a breakthrough season. After winning nine games in Cooper’s first season in 2009-10, the Tigers picked up five more victories a year ago.

With six regular-season games remaining — including two against the nation’s last undefeated team, No. 10 Murray State — TSU (14-10, 7-4) has already matched last year’s win total. Heading into Saturday’s game at second-place Southeast Missouri State, the Tigers ride a four-game winning streak and sit in sole possession of third place in the OVC.

With two more wins, they would become the first TSU team since the 1994-95 season to win more than 15 games.

“My first year they were making the right strides to make this program one of the best,” Covington said. “I put my faith in Coach Cooper in everything. We’re here now and this is the best ball we’re playing.”