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Men’s Basketball: Cooley heating up

Andrew Gastelum | Wednesday, February 1, 2012

On Jan. 10, Notre Dame junior forward Jack Cooley dunked over a South Florida opponent. He landed, stared the Bulls in the face and dared the defenders to challenge him again with a booming roar.

“It was just a way to let it all out,” Cooley said. “I knew I was going to get [a technical foul]. A little voice in my mind told me to stop and avoid the technical foul but there was a bigger voice that told me to keep doing it if it looks cool. At that point in the game I knew it really didn’t matter, and [Irish coach Mike Brey] said he loved it.”

It was unlike anything he had ever done in a Notre Dame uniform, the junior said — a microcosm of his breakout season with the Irish.

At Media Day in October, Brey said he couldn’t ever see Cooley, who is averaging 10.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, playing for 30 minutes in a single game. Now, the junior has logged 30-plus minutes in seven of the last nine, including 43 minutes in Notre Dame’s 67-65 double-overtime victory at No. 10 Louisville.

“Coach [Brey] used to tell me that I am a guy who can get 20 minutes [per night],” Cooley said. “But I think he did that to get me a little angry, get me to work harder and get in better shape. I know I wasn’t planning on being a starter and playing only 20 minutes. I wanted to work hard to play more than that and I kind of took it upon myself to try and prove him wrong and change.”

But the 6’9″ forward said Brey’s message has changed ever so slightly as the season has progressed.

“Now he just tells me to not get in foul trouble so I could go that long,” Cooley said bluntly. “That works for me.”

During the offseason, the Chicago native lost over 30 pounds and enlisted in a cardio program, which included strenuous workouts and conditioning six days a week. But Cooley said the real change in his game occurred midway through the season, when the Irish endured a rough stretch, losing four of five games just two weeks before the start of conference play.

“When I was sick [with the flu] and watching the Maryland game, I got pretty upset with how the season had been going so far,” he said. “I was really disappointed in myself and how I had been playing. I made sure that I made changes, and that was the point where it really started.”

The mellow, soft-spoken junior seems anything but laid-back on the court, especially in Notre Dame’s 67-58 win over then-No. 1 Syracuse, during which he was praised nationally for his unyielding grit and tenacious defense. Cooley recorded a double-double (17 points, 10 rebounds), outmuscling and outhustling the Syracuse big men in a brilliant performance accentuated by the raucous cheers of the sellout crowd.

Then that same crowd joined the big man on the court.

“I was in shock,” Cooley said. “I was just glad to be a part of one of the real rush-the-court games and not one of those lame ones where an underdog beats the No. 10 team. To beat the No. 1 team in the country, especially here because that is what we do here, it felt like a bunch of history was coming together at that moment. It was pretty surreal.

“We know that we play so well in [the Purcell Pavilion]. I don’t know if the fans realize this, but if they jump up-and-down during free throws the basket shakes, so that pretty much makes it impossible to make a shot. There is a special presence during home games.”

One thing that has been constant in Cooley’s time at Notre Dame is the eerie comparison to former Irish forward Luke Harangody. Although Cooley said the comparisons don’t bother him, he said it gets to one person more than anyone.

“It’s not a bad person to be compared to. My girlfriend gets pretty upset over it though. She’ll get visibly and verbally upset,” he said jokingly. “It’s all just for fun though. Although, I didn’t help myself by picking number 45 … It was kind of weird meeting him for the first time, but we are two totally different personalities and two different people.”

Cooley admitted it would be tough to match what Harangody accomplished at Notre Dame. But one thing Harangody never had was a sellout crowd shouting how ‘Coooool’ he is after every big play.

 

Contact Andrew Gastelum at agestel1@nd.edu