As much as Jack Cooley’s life and basketball career have changed this season, it’s only fitting that Big East opponents added to the adjustments down the stretch.
The 6-foot-9, 245-pounder from Glenview, Ill., was an afterthought this time last year, logging just 10 minutes, scoring four points and grabbing two rebounds in Notre Dame’s two NCAA tournament games.
Now, he is Notre Dame’s leading scorer (12.4) and rebounder (9.0), a second-team all-Big East selection, and the conference’s most improved player.
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He doesn’t go under the radar anymore; he activates it.
“A lot of (opposing) players joke around at the free-throw line and say, ‘My coach said to just run into,’ and I’m like, ‘All right, I don’t like that coach anymore,’” deadpanned Cooley, a few days before Notre Dame’s second-round NCAA tournament game against Xavier in Greensboro, N.C.
“There’s been a little more scouting of (me), and they just try to play me differently defensively. They’ve been a little more physical.”
So much so that every now and then, Cooley feels the need for an impromptu heart-to-heart, right there on the court.
“There have been possessions where I have literally turned to my defender and said, ‘Dude, come on, man, we’re both out here to play basketball. What would you do if I did that to you?’” Cooley recalled. “In the last game, I said that to (Louisville’s Gorgui) Dieng and he apologized. I thought he was a pretty nice guy.
“No one means it to be hurtful. It’s just something you have to deal with.”
To label Cooley as a “gentle giant” wouldn’t be completely accurate. His 13 double-doubles - 11 in Big East play - goes a long way toward explaining his improvement and desire to succeed after averaging 3.0 points, 2.8 rebounds and 9.8 minutes per game during his sophomore campaign.
But it’s also easy to see the sensitive side of the unexpected go-to guy who didn’t have the stamina - or savvy - to fight through a barrier that prevented him from playing more than 19 minutes in a game prior to this season.
The turnaround came in the unlikeliest of places.
“It happened in a hospital bed when I was watching the Maryland game,” said Cooley, one of several players felled by illness during the first month of the 2011-12 season, who was averaging 4.8 points and 7.0 rebounds per game through the first eight.
“I was extremely disappointed in the way I was playing and from that point on, I decided I wasn’t going to let anything affect the way I played. I wanted to make sure I changed the game and (didn’t) let other teams affect the way I played. I got my confidence back. My family played a great role in helping my confidence.”
Cooley recorded 12 double-doubles over the final 25 games, taking over the role of leader up front for the Irish.
“It’s kind of surreal to see how far my role has changed from last year,” Cooley said. “I know I have to step up and play well. I just know I have to do my part to help this team win.”
Cooley’s determination is reflective of the collective savvy the Irish showed after falling to 7-5 in December.
“Everyone always looks at the Gonzaga game (a 20-point loss on Nov. 30),” Cooley said. “To be a seven seed compared to that part of the season, it shows that our mentality is that we don’t accept anything. Then we went on that nine-game winning streak and we had a great season. Now we want to prove that again this post-season.”
Personal challenge No. 1 for Cooley in the post-season will come in the form of 7-foot-0, 275-pound Xavier senior Kenny Freeze, a hulking figure who undoubtedly will put a body on the Irish big man.
“I always like the challenge of playing a good big guy, and Kenny Freeze is no exception,” Cooley said. “I watched one of their games earlier this year and I thought about how fun it might be to go up against him.”
The real fun begins in Greensboro Coliseum late Friday night, led by - of all people -- Jack Cooley.