Cooley provides leadership for experienced Irish

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey can’t believe how Jack Cooley has

blossomed into a leader for the Fighting Irish, especially after

wondering whether the 6-9, 245-pound forward would ever get serious

about basketball.

”He’s going to be better than I ever imagined as a leader. He’s

already been better than we thought as a player,” Brey said.

Cooley had a breakthrough season last year, going from being a

dependable reserve averaging 3.7 points and 3.1 rebounds a game as

a sophomore to an integral player averaging 12.5 points and 8.9

rebounds in helping the Irish go 22-12, finish third in the Big

East and earn an NCAA berth.

Brey is counting on Cooley to lead a squad that returns all five

starters and adds 6-10 Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman and

freshmen forwards Cameron Biedscheid and Zach Auguste. The other

returning starters are guards Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins, who

both averaged more than 12 points a game last season, sixth-year

player Scott Martin and Pat Connaughton.

There are high expectations for the Irish, who enter the season

ranked No. 22 and are picked to finish third in the Big East. Brey

wants the Irish aiming higher, though, and has them talking about

trying to win their first Big East regular-season title before

leaving for the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The Irish believe if they can do that, it will lead to bigger

things.

”If we handle our business on the road to trying to win a Big

East regular-season championship, the other stuff will fall in

place,” Cooley said.

Cooley’s turnaround began about a third of the way through last

season. After averaging less than five points and seven rebounds

through the first eight games, Cooley averaged 15 points and almost

10 rebounds a game the rest of the season.

”All of a sudden to Jack, `Hey, basketball is important seven

days a week, not every other day and video games in between.’ He’s

really become a focused guy,” Brey said.

Cooley concedes he didn’t always put basketball first. When he

saw the Irish needed him to step up, he decided it was time to get

serious.

”I really just sat down and thought just get rid of all my

other distractions because basketball is too big a deal, it’s too

important for this university, for me to have other things get in

the way,” he said.

He scored 22 points in back-to-back games against Maine and

Dartmouth in early December. But his first big game against major

competition came when he scored 18 points and pulled down 10

rebounds in a double overtime victory over then-No. 11 Louisville,

playing 43 minutes.

”He was a guy we were worried about minutes and fatigue. In

that game he was such a physical force and part of a big win and

made big plays for us,” Brey said. ”I thought that was the game

he started to believe and started to get confidence.”

Cooley said that game showed him could play most of a game at a

high level.

Cooley became a major force as the Irish won nine straight,

starting with 17 points and 10 rebounds against a previously

unbeaten top-ranked Syracuse team to start a school-record

nine-game win streak against Big East teams. Cooley averaged 16

points and 11 rebounds a game during the run and finished the

season with 13 double-doubles.

But there were also some down games along the way, too. He was

held to two points and no rebounds in playing 25 minutes a 59-41

loss against Georgetown in the second last regular-season game and

had nine points and one rebound against South Florida in the first

round of the Big East tournament.

Cooley worked this season on making sure he’s in better shape,

so he’ll be ready for the physical Big East play. He’s also taken a

more of a vocal role on the team. He said it was hard at times last

season, but he realized it was something he needed to do. That’s

what has Brey so excited. He’s seen Cooley continue to become a

leader that teammates listen to.

”I never thought we’d get to that point. That was not a goal. I

just wanted him serious about him,” Brey said. ”I’m thrilled

about the jumps he’s made and he’s going in really hungry.”