It was at the end of the 2009-10 season when Notre Dame men’s basketball supporters and casual college fans began doing double takes. A freshman at the time, forward Jack Cooley was often mistaken for Fighting Irish star Luke Harangody, who went on to be named a three time all-American. The two looked alike, had similar styles and had a common thread of tenacity on the glass.
Harangody was out with a deep bone bruise as the Irish watched an NCAA Tournament bid begin to slip away, and Cooley helped the team win six consecutive victories (including two in the Big East Conference tournament) to advance to the dance.
Cooley was a surprising role player then. Four years later, he’s Notre Dame’s emotional workhorse, averaging 14.2 points and 11.3 rebounds through the first nine games of the season. He was reunited with Harangody, who was waived by the Cleveland Cavaliers late last month and worked with the Irish at Wednesday’s practice while recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. This time around, Cooley, who started 31 of 32 games last winter and scored 12.5 points and secured 8.9 rebounds per contest and was honored as the Big East’s Most Improved Player, has already forged his own identity.
As head coach Mike Brey develops his bench and begins building for the future, it’s easy to take for granted what he has right now.
“I think you can do that,” Brey admitted at Thursday’s press conference. “The double-doubles and the presence and the rebounding … I think he’s the best rebounder in college basketball; I firmly believe that. I think you can do that sometimes. I think I’m always mindful when we’re watching film or talking to our team as to really make everybody appreciate and understand what this guy gives us, and the physicality he deals with night in and night out.”
Speaking of the future, Notre Dame’s is much more stable than that of its league brethren. The 22nd-ranked Irish (8-1) takes on Purdue Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis as part of the Crossroads Classic. After that, the Irish have three more home non-conference games before kicking off the Big East slate at home against Seton Hall on Jan. 5.
It was announced earlier this fall that all Irish sports other than football and hockey would begin playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2014 or possibly sooner. The Big East has continued to straddle a fault line, watching teams that make no geographical sense join and league pillars defect. The latest news is that seven basketball-only Big East schools, all of which are Catholic institutions, are interested in forming their own hoops-based alliance. It has been reported that Seton Hall, Providence, Georgetown, Villanova, St. Johns, Marquette and DePaul might announce a split as soon as Friday.
In his 13th and possibly last season in the Big East, Brey had mixed emotions about what appears to be the conference’s impending death.
“The month leading up to us making a decision to [go to] the ACC I had very mixed emotions because our identity and my identity has been with the Big East, and I’m really proud to be a Big East guy,” Brey said. “It’s yet another blow we all felt was coming. It’s one of the reasons we made the move we made to the ACC. To see that league maybe really breaking off, I think it’s kind of hard for anybody who invested a lot of time in the league. As I’ve said, one of the things I want to do no matter what the Catholic schools end up doing, is get them involved in our non-league schedule. Georgetown, Villanova, St. Johns, Marquette, Depaul — you can’t play them all — but to rotate them on and off of our non-league schedule. I think they’ll all be receptive to that. When I look at what’s going on, I’m really thankful we landed in the ACC when we did.”