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June 26, 2013

Life after Cooley

Two seasons ago, beginning in his junior season, Jack Cooley emerged as a force in the Big East.

First, he won the league's most improved player award when he averaged 12.5 points and 8.9 rebounds per game for the 2011-12 Fighting Irish. Then he claimed first-team all-Big East honors last season when he averaged 13.1 points and 10.1 rebounds while recording 19 double-doubles.

Cooley finished his career as the 53rd Notre Dame player to score more than 1,000 points (1,017). More importantly, he was ferocious on the backboards. He snagged 649 rebounds his final two years and averaged just a tick under four offensive rebounds per game (3.985).

"Two things I worry about with Jack leaving," said Irish head coach Mike Brey as he begins preparation for his team's entrance into the Atlantic Coast Conference. "How do we rebound the ball on both ends, especially the defensive end, which now has to be done by committee? That guy just got missed shots for us on both ends of the floor.

"And then the energy and the intensity that he played with was contagious to his teammates and contagious to our home court advantage. He could light the fans up and get our building going."

Despite losing Cooley, the Irish enter ACC play with more quality big men than most. Fifth-year seniors Garrick Sherman and Tom Knight lead the way with exciting sophomore Zach Auguste competing to take away playing time from his elders.

When the Irish lost fifth-year senior leader Scott Martin to a season-ending knee injury shortly after conference play began last season, Brey turned to a two-big-man alignment with Knight sparking Notre Dame's fourth straight NCAA tournament bid. Sherman had his ups and downs, but when his confidence was high, he was virtually unstoppable in the paint. When Sherman went through a funk following Martin's injury, Auguste emerged and showed great promise for the future.

"We still want to go into the year with those three big guys," Brey said. "We were able to evolve into a style, and our spacing got better as we did it more. That was my biggest concern. Those three guys rotating through the two big spots is going to be a very important look for us.

"What it did for us was keep two good screeners on the floor for our perimeter guys, and with the depth we have at the perimeter, it's nice to have those two bigs out there freeing up a talented perimeter."

With the addition of freshmen Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia to the backcourt, where they'll join veterans Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant, as well as promising sophomore Cam Biedscheid, the more Notre Dame's big men can free up the Irish shooters, the better.

Brey has faith in his big men.

Brey on Auguste: "If we played North Carolina tonight, we have five guys who have been through the battles, and with Zach Auguste, maybe it's five and three-quarters. I really feel good about the way he finished the season. He was the lone bright spot in the NCAA tournament game. He was the only guy who was flying around.

"I told him, 'You should compete to start, man.'"

How does Auguste take the next step in his game?

"Just continue to slow down a little," Brey said. "He had some turnovers when he played too fast, and those are sins in our program. I think he's gotten better with the ball.

"Just slow it down and keep it simple. Run the floor, be an energy guy, get on the backboard. Then, as he gets comfortable, I think he has the ability - probably behind Sherman as far as level of confidence - to score in the low post. He has the hands and the footwork in the post, and we want to take advantage of that as he gets more confident this season."

Brey on Sherman: "One of the things that will help Garrick is that he finished pretty strong. Because there is a leadership role for him now, that puts him in a more confident, prepared, not-worry-about-myself-as-much frame of mind because he's got responsibilities to lead and get others ready. I think that will help him have a more consistent senior year."

Brey on Knight: "I'd like to see Tom Knight take on a greater leadership role. There's a limit there, but it's his fifth year and coming off the year he had for us, he flat out saved us. If Tom Knight doesn't come to the party, we're going to the NIT. He's a very confident guy and his teammates are confident in him."

Brey also has high hopes for sophomore Austin Burgett, who bypassed an opportunity to preserve a year of eligibility and played sparingly in 2012-13. Brey said a competent Burgett would allow the Irish to play "four around one" in the mold of a Scott Martin and Rob Kurz.

"From an offensive standpoint, I think we're going to score," Brey said. "But (Cooley) was the ultimate get-a-second-shot guy. We don't have an offensive rebounder as good as Jack Cooley.

"Can we get a couple of guys a little more aware of getting to that board? Tom Knight has that instinct. Zach has that instinct. Garrick Sherman has that instinct. Can Austin Burgett bring that to the table? (Pat) Connaughton needs to get there a little more, and I think he will."

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