If everything goes according to plan, Mason Cooper will not play one minute of basketball for Eastern Kentucky University this season.

A freshman on the Colonels roster, Cooper will redshirt this season. That means he can practice with the team, but he will not play. Beginning next season, the Lawrence High School graduate will still have four years of eligibility to play college basketball. This is exactly what Cooper wants. The time on the practice court, and the time watching his teammates play games, is the first step in Cooper’s plan to turn himself into a Division I basketball player.

“This is what I wanted from the start. I thought I needed to get better,” Cooper said in a phone interview on Monday. The Colonels were getting ready for their trip to Houston for the Friday’s season opener at Rice. EKU won that game, 73-72. As per the rules of his redshirt, Cooper did not make the trip. He can dress for home games, and will travel with the team on bus trips throughout the Ohio Valley Conference.

As a senior at Lawrence, Cooper was a Maine Mr. Basketball semifinalist after averaging 24.2 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. Cooper received a lot of attention from Division III coaches, but he wanted to see if he could play at a higher level. He sent his highlight tape to Dan McHale, head coach at Eastern Kentucky, where his friend and Messalonskee graduate Nick Mayo was already a star. McHale liked what he saw on the tape and in person when he met with Cooper and his parents.

“I said, ‘Look, there’s a chance you might never play. But if you work hard, you could earn some time,'” McHale said.

That was all Cooper needed to hear. He arrived at Eastern Kentucky last summer, eager to get to work. Cooper’s Welcome-to-Division I-Basketball moment came on his first day on the Richmond, Kentucky campus, in a pick-up game with his new teammates. Deandrew Dishman, a 6-foot-6 sophomore forward, blocked a Cooper shot into the bleachers.

“I didn’t even see him. He came out of nowhere,” Cooper said. “I said to myself, I gotta wake up. This is big-time ball.”

The biggest adjustment for Cooper isn’t the size of the players, it’s the speed. The 6-2, 175-pound Cooper has taken the court against bigger guys before, but never bigger guys like Dishman, who can suddenly appear as if they teleported into the lane to swat your shot into the fifth row.

McHale and Mayo see Cooper as a good fit on the Colonels roster.

“He wins every wind sprint. He’s the first in the gym and the last to leave. Mason makes my day every time I see him,” McHale said.

Added Mayo: “For all freshmen, it takes a while to adjust. He’s done a very good job with it. He has a lot of energy.”

Cooper sees Mayo as a mentor as well as a friend.

“I don’t have to question what he’s telling me. He’s been through the ropes,” Cooper said.

Cooper also gives Mayo a teammate with which he can discuss all things Maine. Cooper’s addition to the Colonels gives EKU, a school almost 1,200 miles from the University of Maine’s Orono campus, as many Mainers as the Black Bears have on the roster.

Cooper said he’s already added 10 pounds of muscle, so he can be stronger and more equipped to finish at the rim. He’s working on his form to become a better outside shooter. If Copper can consistently knock down 3-pointers, his chance at playing time next season increases.

“I think that might be my niche,” Cooper said.

If he had chosen a Division III school, or even Division II, there’s a chance Cooper would be getting ready to play in games now. But what would be the fun, the challenge, in that? This journey is a kind of self-imposed adversity, and Cooper embraces it.

“I enjoy it. I like practicing every day,” Cooper said. “I love the area. I like the school. This is only going to make me better.”

Cooper is not just talking about basketball.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

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Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM