Freshman Joseph quietly leading Longhorns

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Mens Basketball

Freshman guard Cory Joseph is known as the quietest player on the team, so when he steps up and makes a statement, it tends to get noticed — even if he isn’t speaking with his mouth.

Two Saturdays ago, in a home game against Texas Tech, Joseph stole a ball from Tech guard Mike Singletary near half-court and took off for the basket.

Singletary eventually caught up with the smaller Longhorn and they both jumped at about the same time from two steps inside the free-throw line. The Red Raider defender came across Joseph’s body and fouled him, but the Texas guard still delivered a crushing dunk, despite his two-inch height disadvantage.

Prior to the Tech game, Joseph was watching highlight videos of his former high school team, Findlay Prep, on YouTube with teammates Tristan Thompson and J’Covan Brown. Brown began joking with Joseph about how the younger player never dunked with his right hand during a game.

“We laughed about it, laughed about it, and he was just like ‘Make sure you get me motivated to dunk on somebody today,’” Brown said.

The chiding continued into warm-ups, when Thompson and Brown kept making comments as they stood behind Joseph during layup drills. At one point, Joseph turned around and, according to Brown, said: “First time I get a fast break, I’m not gonna let anyone stop me.”

With 14:20 to play in the first half, Singletary drove left off a pick near the top of the key, right into Joseph, who knocked the ball loose. He quickly gained control and sprinted in the opposite direction, although he slowed a bit as he neared the basket and got ready to leap. For Joseph, there was no question — this was his dunk.

“J’Covan was actually riding me about how come I never dunked like that during a game,” he said. “I just had to show him.”

Singletary tried to stop the breakaway basket by fouling, but Joseph dunked right through the arm for an emphatic and-one play; Texas 19, Tech 8.

“We’d never seen him dunk with his right hand before,” Brown said. “He proved it.”

The first person to find Joseph was Thompson, his roommate, and the two shared a chest-bump at the baseline. Then Joseph paced around the lower part of the court with a maniacal look on his face, daring anyone to ask about his quiet voice or supposed shyness. He went from watching online highlights to making one of his own in fewer than 60 minutes.

It was an uncharacteristic play. Teammates often remark about how quiet he is and the man is soft-spoken in interviews. Findlay head coach Mike Peck, who had both Joseph and Thompson for a year, called the former “a silent assassin.”

“He didn’t dunk a lot for us, but when he did, he’d do it with his left hand,” said Peck, who got a chance to see the dunk on SportsCenter’s daily top 10 plays at No. 3 that night. “I wasn’t surprised, but I
was impressed.”

Cory was just as quiet and mild-mannered in high school, better known for his penetrating drives than his voice.

“It’s self-discipline, self-control,” Peck said. “He’s the ultimate because you could never tell if he was down by 30, up by 30, or losing by one with a minute left.”

That poise paid off in Findlay’s big games. Joseph was cool and collected whenever he had the ball in his hands with a chance to win it.

Against Ohio powerhouse Northland High School in a December 2010 game — when current collegiate star Jared Sullinger played there — Joseph slipped behind the defense and knocked down a pull-up jumper to give Findlay a one-point lead with seconds left on the clock.

Northland came back to win on a pair of free throws on its next possession, but Peck knew Joseph would hit the exact same big-time shot if given another chance.

“Those are the shots he’d do the same tomorrow,” the prep coach said. “He’s just sharp enough to realize that’s life and sometimes your shots fall, sometimes they don’t.”

For Texas, Joseph has been just as clutch at times. He hit a turnaround jumper to win versus North Carolina on Dec. 18 despite missing a potential game winner against Pittsburgh a month prior. The freshman is not afraid of taking the final shot.

“That was just a situation where I was in and I hit it,” he said. “Stuff like that happens and stuff like that doesn’t happen.”

For all of his offensive acumen, he wasn’t a complete college player when he first arrived. His defense wasn’t up to the level of a starting shooting guard. He came in anxious, said head coach Rick Barnes, and left his feet too much, allowing players to sometimes blow by him.

But teammates say he’s matured and earned more playing time because of it. He now averages a team-high 32.3 minutes per game.

“He’s much more disciplined defensively,” Barnes said.

Barnes put him on Baylor’s leading scorer, LaceDarius Dunn, last weekend, and Joseph has defended some of the top guards in the Big 12 since conference play began.

“He’s gotten much better at defense,” said Texas guard Dogus Balbay, echoing others.

That doesn’t mean he’s gotten any louder, although he’s certainly trying.

“I’m becoming more of a vocal leader,” Joseph said. “The guys are helping me as well.”

Yet Brown said Joseph’s still “the quietest guy on the team.”

Not that anyone will complain about Joseph’s volume, as long as he sustains this level of play.

At Findlay near Las Vegas, Peck has won the past two high school national titles and produced more than a dozen NCAA Division I athletes, but he reserved special praise for the “silent assassin.”

“He’s the best we’ve ever had,” Peck said. “Just the way he went about his business, he was something else.”

Joseph and the rest of the Longhorns get another chance to show who’s best in the Big 12 tonight, when they face Oklahoma State for the second time this season at 8 p.m. in the Frank Erwin Center.