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October 17, 2012
In a blink of an eye, Jack Cooley went from a bit player as a sophomore to the most improved player in the Big East as a junior.
Now, he’s taking a step even more gigantic than the 6-foot-9, 246-pounder ever could have imagined.
Jack Cooley: scorer, rebounder?leader of the 2012-13 Fighting Irish? No one is more shocked than his head coach.
“I never thought we’d even get to that point,” said Brey of a player now considered a leading candidate to be named one of the team’s captains.
“It was not a goal. I just wanted him serious about him. We’d let somebody else take care of that other stuff.”
The “other stuff” came out of nowhere as well. After averaging 4.8 points with single-digit rebounding in six of the first eight games last season, the Glenview, Ill., product emerged as not only the most improved player in the Big East, but one of the most improved players in the country.
After averaging 3.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 9.8 minutes per game as a sophomore, Cooley averaged 17.8 points over the last eight regular-season games as a junior. He grabbed double-digit rebounds in 11 of 18 Big East games and scored in double digits 12 times.
For the season, he averaged 12.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and, perhaps most astounding, 28.7 minutes per game while shooting an impressive 62.5 percent from the field. Jack Cooley had become a force.
“Right before we went on that big run in the Big East, right before Syracuse, was when I thought I needed to step up and something needed to change,” said Cooley, referring to Notre Dame’s victory over the No. 1 Orange and the team’s nine-game Big East winning streak."I just realized I needed to do something because it wasn't working the way it was going. Whatever we were doing at that time, I needed to fix or someone needed to fix. No one better than me to do it."
-- Jack Cooley
“That’s when the change happened with me and when it happened with the team. I just realized I needed to do something because it wasn’t working the way it was going. Whatever we were doing at that time, I needed to fix or someone needed to fix. No one better than me to do it.”
Cooley’s transformation was so complete that it carried over into the off-season as he began preparing for his final year of eligibility at Notre Dame. No more begging off the court during a difficult practice. No more slowing down during conditioning drills. The time had come for the leader during games to become the leader 24/7.
“Last year, because he was going to start, there was no magic wand,” Brey said. “All of a sudden, basketball was important seven days a week, not every other day and video games in between. He’s really become a focused guy.
“He went out to that adidas camp this summer in August and he was the leading rebounder there. Now, he’s talking about our group. I’m shocked and so pleased to see the maturity of this guy. He can help his teammates now.”
Cooley has matured so much that he doesn’t even shy away from the questions about his past lethargy and lack of total commitment.
“That was accurate,” said Cooley of Brey’s depiction of him. “I had other things that maybe I prioritized a little more than basketball. But I just focused solely on basketball and school. Those are my only two focuses right now, and it’s working out pretty well.
“I just realized that I’m going to have to be a captain now. Making sure everyone is in the best shape possible and doing what they need to do to get better. Just trying to make this team the best it can be.
“I think I always had the potential really. There were just so many leaders here that my presence really wasn’t needed in a leadership role. Once it came my time, I knew I had to step up and help my team.”
Cooley admits that the role hasn’t come naturally. There are times when an inner voice tells him it’s time to say something to the team. Slowly, those uncomfortable moments are becoming a part of the job.
“I’ve literally thought to myself, ‘I probably better say something now,’” Cooley smiled. “I’ve had a couple of those. But it’s gotten a lot better. It’s gotten more fluid, more instinctive.
“I didn’t always know if I was going to say the right thing. But our team listens so well and they’re all open to insight. Whatever you say, the young guys will listen to you and follow your lead. It’s a lot easier to speak from the role I’m in now than the role I was in the beginning of last year. That helps definitely.”
Brey admits that Cooley’s voice would have been a distant noise had he tried to speak up before he proved himself in games and, more importantly, on the practice floor, in the weight room, and during conditioning drills.
“His teammates were down on him as a young guy,” Brey said. “Some days he didn’t want to do it and there were days when he got tired.
“Now his teammates really respect him. When he says something to Jerian (Grant) or Eric (Atkins) or Pat (Connaughton) or Garrick (Sherman) or the freshmen, they’re going to listen to him.”
Cooley is still more comfortable letting his actions do the talking. But as the Irish try to make a run at Louisville and Syracuse for the Big East crown, he won’t hesitate to make himself heard.
“Once everyone saw I had been working on my game and as hard as everyone else, they all started to listen to me a little more,” Cooley said. “It feels good to be a leader of this team. This team needs me to be a leader.”
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