Cooper could be the missing piece

He said it.

During his introductory press conference Tuesday afternoon in Heritage Hall’s Varsity Lounge, the new Women of Troy basketball coach Michael Cooper — yes, that Michael Cooper — quoted The Godfather in explaining his rationale behind taking the USC job.

You can probably guess what he said, but let me give you a little background first.

Seasoned pro · New USC women’s basketball coach Michael Cooper is not only a former WNBA coach but also a former Los Angeles Laker. - Dieuwertje Kast | Daily Trojan

Seasoned pro · New USC women’s basketball coach Michael Cooper is not only a former WNBA coach but also a former Los Angeles Laker. - Dieuwertje Kast | Daily Trojan

Cooper won five NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s as one of the league’s first defensive specialists — Bruce Bowen before there was Bruce Bowen, if you will. Larry Bird frequently referred to “Coop” as the best defender he ever played against.

After his playing career ended, Cooper successfully jumped around the coaching world, spending parts of seven seasons at the helm of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, a season as head coach in the NBDL, and even filling an interim head coaching position with the Denver Nuggets of the NBA for a month in 2004.

Suffice it to say, he’s a proven coach.

Yet, he said Tuesday that moving — down, most would argue — to the women’s college basketball ranks was a no-brainer.

And he did this while alluding to one of the best movies of the 20th century.

“When the opportunity came up, I couldn’t say no,” Cooper, 53, said at his press conference. “It’s almost like that old mafia rule, ‘I’m gonna make you an offer that you can’t refuse.’”

He was joking, of course, but still, you have to wonder where Cooper’s coming from.

The Women of Troy finished an average-at-best 17-15 last year, failing to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

Then the two leading scorers from last year’s team graduated.

Then USC’s top-rated recruit in the class of 2009 — forward/center Monique Oliver, a McDonald’s All American — asked for her release and signed with Rutgers.

An offer you can’t refuse?

I wouldn’t say so.

But to each his own, and USC will reap the benefits of Cooper’s opinion.

He will be an instant upgrade to Mark Trakh, who resigned in April after five seasons in Troy. Cooper brings an undeniable pro swagger to the Women of Troy and that important defensive reputation. He already has three titles to his name as a head coach. And he’s from the Pasadena area.

Translation: Apart from his coaching abilities, he’ll also be able to recruit the best and brightest, including athletes from Los Angeles that have looked away from USC in recent years.

He’s already growing on his players, who appreciate that pro experience, usually unseen at the women’s collegiate level.

“We know a lot more about coach Cooper than people think,” said sophomore Briana Gilbreath, the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year last season. “Even though we’re younger people, we’ve seen him on the court, we’ve seen what he’s about. We know he has so much experience.”

They also think he can help a talented roster mesh together.

USC already has a lot of talent on its roster. Gilbreath, a 6-foot-1 guard, led the team in rebounding in conference play while averaging 10.5 points per game. Sophomore point guard Ashley Corral averaged 8.5 points while earning Honorable Mention Pac-10 All-Freshman honors.

Redshirt junior guard Jacki Gemelos was named National Player of the Year in the class of 2006 by most recruiting services before tearing her ACL three times. She’s yet to appear in a game with the Women of Troy, but 30 days before the season kicks off with a home date against Xavier, she finally appears healthy.

And there’s more: Returning seniors Hailey Dunham, Aarika Hughes and Heather Oliver bring leadership and, collectively, nearly 18 points per game from last season.

Of course, Gemelos isn’t a sure thing, and neither is the team’s potential.

But don’t tell that to the Women of Troy.

“Once coach Cooper came in, it was like that last piece to our puzzle,” Dunham said.

One thing is for sure about Cooper: He’s brash — in a good way. He didn’t sugarcoat anything in front of the media Tuesday.

“I know the process is gonna be tedious,” Cooper said of his first year as a college coach. “I know it’s gonna be a journey, but right now I think our coaching staff and our players are ready for the journey that we’re about to encounter.”

And he certainly didn’t shy away from taking digs at other Los Angeles teams.

He did so — twice, in fact. First in line was his former team.

“The biggest thing is that we are a very talented team as far as shooting the basketball, much more so than the Los Angeles Sparks,” Cooper said to laughter from his players flanking him at the podium. “We’re talented in a lot of different areas.”

Then he went after the men.

“I bet you we play better basketball than the Los Angeles Clippers,” Cooper said while trying to convince a reporter to come out to Women of Troy contests. “Oh yeah, you can write that down.”

Will do. We’ll see, Coop.

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