Xavier Cooks puts his shot past Campbell's Andrew Eudy. (Photo courtesy Jeff Sochko)

Australia's Xavier Cooks finds his comfort zone at Winthrop

When all is said and done, Xavier Cooks said, the trip from his Australian homeland to Rock Hill, S.C., takes about 19 hours by air.

Winthrop’s junior guard/forward goes 6-8. That’s a long time for his knees to remain in the upright and locked position.

“I’m too big,” he said, “for that flight.”

He first took it three years ago, and upon landing he found the fit more to his liking. His fellow students were welcoming. The style of play, with its accent on individual athleticism over five-man cohesion, took some getting used to, but the adjustment wasn’t insurmountable.

He played a lot his first year and has been a fixture since his second. This season he is again complementing Keon Johnson, the explosive senior guard, by doing a little bit of everything for the Eagles (20-6, 12-3 Big South). And they find themselves a game behind conference co-leaders North Carolina-Asheville and Liberty heading into Saturday's game against the Flames (18-10, 13-2) on ASN.

Winthrop, paced by the 5-7 Johnson (21.9), is the conference’s highest-scoring team, averaging 78.5 points a game. But Cooks, seventh in the league in scoring (15.8), believes the bigger reason for the Eagles’ success to date is their work on defense.

They are limiting opponents to conference lows of 41% shooting and 31% three-point accuracy. Their 5.2 blocked shots per game are also the most in the Big South.

Cooks shows up there. He is averaging 1.7 swats a night, equaling the league's highest rate.

He also shows up on the boards; he is second with 8.8 rebounds a game, and grabbed a career-high 20 Wednesday against Longwood, while also scoring 21 points.

And he’s making nearly half his shots (.489).

So yeah, it’s safe to say he’s comfortable everywhere, doing just about everything.

“You talk about stuffing the stat sheet, what isn’t he doing?” coach Pat Kelsey asked Bret McCormick of Heraldonline.com earlier this season.

The only asterisk, as mentioned in that very piece, is turnovers. Cooks is averaging three a night, and has had eight games of five or more.

Kelsey suggested to McCormick that Cooks had a tendency to “be a little too courageous and make something happen when it’s not there,” and Cooks did not disagree when asked about this matter last week.

“Especially early in the year I was just trying to force way too much,” he said. “I was trying to drive into lanes that just weren’t there, and I was trying to be way too aggressive. I think I really settled down a little bit and let the game come to me more.”

Defensively, Cooks is not a swoop-from-the-weakside shot-blocker. Rather, he said, “I’m more the kind of guy that’s just going to guard the ball and use my length in the one-on-ones. … I don’t have the fastest feet, to say the least, but I do an all-right job.”

He grew up in Wollongong, a city of nearly 300,000 on Australia’s southeastern coast, some 90 minutes south of Sydney. His dad, Eric, played at St. Mary’s and later in the NBL, Australia’s professional league; he has coached in that same league for two decades.

Xavier’s older brother, Dominique, played at Chaminade, the Hawaii-based Division II power. And it stood to reason that the youngest Cooks would follow in their footsteps, especially after growing from 6 feet to 6-7 in his late teens.

Iowa, LSU and Boston College wooed him while he was at the Australian Institute of Sport’s Basketball Centre of Excellence in Canberra. But he connected with Kelsey, especially after the coach traveled Down Under to recruit him. Cooks also liked the idea of a smaller school.

“I just knew that’s a real business in those kind of big schools,” he said. “I’ve heard so many stories of Australians coming to America and going to those kind of schools, and probably having to do with the coaching staff, they get really down. They really doubt their abilities. I wasn’t trying to go through that whole roller-coaster.”

So he made that endless trip to Rock Hill, via Dallas. First day of classes, he was stunned at how many of his fellow students greeted him.

“And I’m like, ‘I’m not sure if I know you, but I think we’re still friends,’” he said.

Things were not so warm and fuzzy in the gym. Not at first.

“The American game style is more like just bigger, athletic, stronger guys who will go one-on-one and just try and dunk on you,” he said with a laugh. “In Australia, we respect the layup a lot more. You guys love to slam-dunk everything.”

He adjusted. He found his comfort zone. And he has yet to leave it.

Gordie Jones is a freelance writer based in Lititz, Pa. Follow him on Twitter at @gordonwjones.

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