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
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
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