The Notre Dame men’s basketball team has so earnestly subscribed to head coach Mike Brey’s team concept it’s hard to identify the group's ringleader.
Sophomore point guard Eric Atkins has been given the complete freedom to direct the offense on a basis of feel. Freshman guard Pat Connaughton can fire 3-pointers at will and pile up points in a flash. Sophomore Jerian Grant is still realizing just how good he really is, and fifth-year senior Scott Martin is the face of a special defensive effort this season.
But if the 2011-12 campaign thus far had to be summed up by one player, it would have to be junior forward Jack Cooley, a 6-foot-9, 248-pounder that apparently runs on diesel fuel.
Named the Big East Player of the Week after pulling the 23rd-ranked Fighting Irish (18-8, 10-3 Big East) to wins over West Virginia and DePaul last week — games where he combined for 43 points and 26 rebounds — Cooley backed up the award with 22 points and 18 rebounds Wednesday in a victory over Rutgers.
“I think he’s come a long way in his day-to-day hunger,” Brey said of Cooley, who’s averaging a team-best 14.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per Big East contest. “I think at times when he was a younger player he could take a day off and maybe not be as engaged. I wasn’t as engaged in him because he was the seventh guy. Now that he’s a main guy, he’s more of the focal point. I’ve been very pleased to see that when Jack has had success he’s continued to want to have more.
“I’ve been worried about him stepping back and going, ‘Man, that’s been pretty good; that’s enough.’ I haven’t really seen that.”
Cooley, who has a league-high 62 offensive rebounds and is second in total rebounding in Big East play behind WVU’s Kevin Jones (10.9 per game), credits his teammates, coaches and trainers for such success this season.
“The whole program has really helped me to become what I am right now,” Cooley said. “Everyone’s getting the ball to me, coaches have helped me get my cardio back up and everyone is giving me confidence. The confidence is key for any basketball player. Everyone is supplying me with such confidence it’s hard not to play well.”
His motor this winter is the result of equal parts internal drive and personal responsibility, he says. And Cooley is fine with all the recent attention, if only because it might open things up for other Notre Dame players.
“The more focus there is on me the less there is on my teammates,” Cooley explained. “Everyone forgets that Jerian and Eric are knockdown shooters. The reason I’ve been scoring is probably because they’ve been focusing on them so much. If you put the focus on me, that’s fine by me, because then those guys will go for 20 [points] each. It’s going to work out well for our team.”
Being a big man in the Big East is more like mixed martial arts at times than basketball. Though Cooley’s quite capable of delivering a beating, he also takes plenty during a brutal league schedule. There are times when friends ask him to go shoot around during his off time. Cooley just laughs, declines, and then ices “every” part of his body.
“It’s gotten pretty bad,” Cooley admitted. “This explains why my freshman and sophomore year it seemed that Ty Nash maybe wasn’t going 100 percent in practice all the time. In the Big East, there’s so much wear and tear on your body; you can’t afford to go 110 percent. You’ve got to play smart.”
Cooley, whom Brey jokingly said eats a steady diet of raw meat, said he’s still trying to figure out how to do that. For now, he’s playing as ruggedly as he can. He’s hungry.