Notre Dame-Villanova Preview

A non-factor through much of Notre Dame’s non-conference

schedule, Jack Cooley has been at the center of the team’s offense

during an impressive run through the Big East.

Cooley will try to help the 23rd-ranked Irish win eight straight

conference games for the first time in 11 years Saturday night when

they visit Villanova, which could be without two starters.

After moving into the AP Top 25 for the first time this season

Monday, Notre Dame (18-8, 10-3) won its seventh in a row with a

71-53 victory over Rutgers on Wednesday.

Cooley recorded his third straight double-double, scoring 17 of

his career-high-tying 22 points in the second half. He also had a

career-best 18 rebounds, including eight offensive boards.

The 6-foot-9 junior is averaging 21.7 points and 14.7 rebounds

the last three games while totaling 17 offensive rebounds.

“That’s what we expect from him,” sophomore guard Eric Atkins

said. “When he plays like that, we are really hard to beat.”

Cooley scored in double figures in just one of Notre Dame’s

first eight games, but he now has nine double-doubles on the season

– seven in conference play.

His surge has made the Irish perhaps the hottest team in the Big

East. Notre Dame’s winning streak includes three victories over

ranked opponents, beginning against then-No. 1 Syracuse on Jan. 21,

and it has the Irish tied for second place in the conference – two

games behind the Orange in the loss column.

Cooley credits his improvement to the increased pressure

teammates Jerian Grant and Atkins are facing. Grant, the Irish’s

leading scorer, had just five field-goal attempts Wednesday while

Atkins was held below his scoring average (12.8 ppg) for the second

time in three games.

“We’re having a blast,” senior Scott Martin said. “We don’t care

who has the most points. As long as we get the win, everyone is

happy. It’s always a great atmosphere to be in.”

Notre Dame also continues to do an excellent job defensively,

holding opponents to an average of 55.3 points on 38.3 percent

shooting during the winning streak. The Irish haven’t won eight

consecutive conference games since the 2000-01 season.

“As long as we keep playing defense the way we are, I think we

can keep this up,” Atkins said. “I think that’s where it

starts.”

Notre Dame has a good chance to keep rolling Saturday with

Villanova (11-14, 4-9) likely to be missing two starters.

Leading scorer Maalik Wayns suffered a sprained MCL in his left

knee earlier this month and did not play in a 65-51 loss at South

Florida on Wednesday. He is doubtful for Saturday.

Meanwhile, sophomore guard James Bell suffered a sprained left

ankle in the second half against the Bulls and will be out the next

two games.

Wayns ranks fourth in the Big East with 17.8 points per game

while Bell is averaging 7.5.

“Obviously we would miss both of those guys, but this is an

opportunity for some of our younger guys to contribute and gain

experience,” coach Jay Wright said.

Without Wayns on Wednesday, the Wildcats lost for the fourth

time in five games. They shot a season-worst 30.2 percent and gave

up 45 points in the second half. Maurice Sutton, who scored 10

points in just 17 minutes off the bench, was the only Villanova

player to finish in double figures.

The Wildcats have dropped nine in a row against teams in the Top

25, including a 93-72 loss at then-No. 8 Notre Dame last

season.