Whereas many of the Big East Conferences’ best big men are physically gifted, relying on top-tier natural ability as a base on which to build, Notre Dame senior forward Jack Cooley came to South Bend in 2009 as a load of raw material.
Jack Cooley will get some help under the basket this year with MSU transfer Garrick Sherman (center) eligible to play and freshmen forwards Zach Auguste and Cameron Biedscheid expected to contribute
As a freshman, he was confused with then-senior Luke Harangody based on looks alone. As a sophomore, Cooley showed promise with 3.7 points and 3.1 rebounds per game playing behind Carleton Scott and Ty Nash, but it still wasn’t clear if the 6-9 player from Glenbrook South High in Illinois could effectively shoulder heavy minutes in the rough-and-tumble Big East as a junior.
It didn’t take long to get an answer last season. Cooley, who was recently selected as an All-Big East Preseason first-teamer, raised every conceivable part of his game — from becoming more fluid and powerful offensively in the paint, to his overall conditioning and tenacity on the defensive end of the floor — to become the emotional engine of the Fighting Irish.
Notre Dame, which lost fifth-year senior forward Tim Abromaitis to a season-ending knee injury around Thanksgiving, dragged its feet to an 8-5 record by the time league play rolled around, losing to the only noteworthy squads on the schedule (Missouri, Georgia, Gonzaga and Indiana) by an average of 16 points per contest.
The Irish showed some spirit early in Big East play, knocking off an overrated No. 22 Pittsburgh team at home, winning at Louisville in overtime and beating South Florida in South Bend for a 3-1 start. But back-to-back losses to Connecticut and Rutgers on the road brought head coach Mike Brey’s team back down to earth in a hurry. It prompted Cooley, inconsistent through the first half of the season, to look in the mirror. A different player emerged from that introspection, one that powered the Irish to nine consecutive victories, beginning with a stunning upset over then-No. 1 Syracuse (67-58) at Notre Dame’s Purcell Pavilion on Jan. 21.
“Right before we went on that big run in the Big East, right before Syracuse, was probably the main time when I just thought I need to step up and that something needed to change. That's when the change happened for me and that's when the change happened for the team. I just realized I needed to do something because it wasn't working the way it was going."
By the time the Irish were deep into February, Cooley had made the league’s honor roll for a fifth time and helped boost the team to No. 20 in the Associated Press poll — it’s highest ranking in that poll all year — and a tie for second with Marquette in the conference standings after being picked ninth in the Big East preseason coaches’ poll.
“I just became more vocal, really, and put all caution to the wind,” said Cooley, who finished the year averaging 12.5 points and 8.9 rebounds per game en route to the league’s Most Improved Player award. “Whatever we were doing at the time I needed to fix or someone needed to fix and I figured there's no one better than me to do it. I just stepped up."
Notre Dame’s winning streak ended in a three-point loss to St. John’s on Feb. 25, a game where Cooley scored 18 points and snared 11 rebounds with a double-bye in the league tournament still on the line. He had a complete clunker two days later at Georgetown, going 1-for-5 from the field for two points in the 59-41 loss, knowing there was just one game remaining against Providence. Cooley promptly bounced back with a career-high 27 points and 17 rebounds for his 12th double-double and sixth 20-point game of the season.
“Does Jack Cooley pick up where he left off?” Brey said at media day earlier this month. “We want him to keep thinking he can get better.”
With Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman (6-10, 246), a center who sat out last season per NCAA rules, eligible to play this season, his in-practice battles with Cooley should make for a potent frontcourt tandem in 2012-13.
“Garrick Sherman — how do we work with him and how is he going to be used playing two big men?” Brey said. “… Well, when [Cooley gets] to play against that big body everyday, there's a challenge everyday in practice. It gave him a big man who sometimes kicked his backside, because Garrick is hard to defend and Garrick can lean on him physically. I think they are really pleased that they are going to be playing together for half of practice tomorrow rather than beating on each other.”
The idea of putting both on the floor at the same time, whether that it’s on occasion or for extended periods of time, is exciting for Brey, who has added flexibility with the addition of athletic freshman forwards Cam Biedscheid (6-7, 186) and Zach Auguste (6-10, 230).
“Yeah, it's been a while,” Brey admitted. “I pulled out some tape from my first couple years when we played a lot of three around two with two big guys in there. I don't know if we want to be three around two, but I like having two big guys in there, and I think our big guys, whoever they are, whether it's Garrick, Jack, Tom (Knight), or Zach (Auguste), the thing that has helped us with our efficiency is that our big guys are good with the ball. So we may still be four around one even though we have two bigs in the lineup.”
Cooley’s all for sharing some of the wear and tear that comes with a grinding Big East slate.
“Our team is gigantic,” he said. “I look around and we could have four people above 6'8 on the court right now. It's a big team. We're going to control the boards. It's going to be a lot of help and it's going to be a lot easier for me to have more help out there this year.”