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January 24, 2012

Cooley breaking down barriers

Jack Cooley sat on a chair in the visiting locker room at the KFC Yum Center following Notre Dame’s 67-65 double-overtime victory over Louisville.

Sitting might not quite be an accurate depiction of the 6-foot-9, 248-pound junior’s reclined position. Cooley was sprawled out on a chair, head back, legs extended, body limp.

“He was sitting there like he was in a coma,” joked Irish head coach Mike Brey.

Cooley had just played 43 out of a possible 50 minutes, scoring 18 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. He converted 6-of-12 shots from the field and 6-of-7 from the line. Just as important as his scoring and rebounding numbers was the fact that with the game on the line, Cooley was on the court, helping lead the Irish to victory.

Cooley’s 43 minutes at Louisville was 10 more than his career high, and an astonishing 24 minutes more than he had ever played in a Notre Dame game prior to the 2011-12 season.

He’s been breaking down barriers all season.

Cooley was at it again last Saturday night at Purcell Pavilion when Notre Dame - desperately needing a victory after falling to Connecticut and Rutgers - never trailed in its 67-58 conquest of undefeated and No. 1-ranked Syracuse.

Cooley scored 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in 35 minutes of action. He kept balls alive on the backboard, went diving to the Purcell Pavilion floor to come up with loose balls, and battled to take full advantage of the absence of 7-foot-0, 245-pound Syracuse center Fab Melo.

“I’m just a lot more confident in my game and I trust my skills,” said Cooley Monday as the Irish began preparations for its Wednesday night clash with the Pirates at Seton Hall. “I can compete with everyone else out there and I can do well.

“I just have to go out there and know that I belong. Coach Brey starts me for a reason and I’m out there playing and playing well.”

Such comments may be common for major college athletes. But for Cooley, there were some walls to scale after arriving from Glenbrook South High School in Illinois.

One was his confidence to play at this level, which was directly tied to his stamina.

“That was really one of the main things that was keeping me from getting better,” Cooley said. “Just to be able to work every day, and then getting my diet right and working on my cardio was huge.”

In the fourth game of the 2011-12 season against Delaware, Cooley played 31 minutes. He scored 11 points and grabbed a career-high 17 rebounds. But he managed just one rebound and no points in 18 minutes of action against Missouri, and then scored just two points with six rebounds against Georgia. Both games, not surprisingly, resulted in a loss.

Two games later, after scoring six points and grabbing six rebounds in 21 minutes of action in a one-sided loss to Gonzaga, Cooley came down with the flu, forcing him to miss the Maryland game.

That was the jumping off point. Cooley had had enough.

“I decided it was time to start playing like I knew I was capable of playing,” Cooley said.

In the last 11 games, Cooley has averaged 15.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per game while logging 29.5 minutes per contest.

“He did a very good job of coming off the bench as a freshman and sophomore,” Brey said. “You had (Luke) Harangody in the way, and then you had (Ty) Nash in the way. The door swings open with Nash leaving, and he’s really capitalized on it.

“He feels so good about himself. The conditioning factor that we were a little bit concerned about has really not been a factor. He’s been able to play extended minutes. He’s one of the more underrated ball handling big guys, and right now I think he’s playing as well as any big guy in the league.”

While there was a physical/biological explanation for Cooley’s stamina issues, there also were some psychological factors at play.

“It was kind of demoralizing seeing everyone out there in great shape and being fine with it and not having to work as hard,” Cooley said. “We had some tests done and saw that it was not going to be as easy for me to be in as good of shape as everyone else. I just have to work at it harder and that’s what I ended up doing. Learning that it wasn’t impossible for me to get in good shape was a help.

“Coming here, I knew my conditioning had to step up to another level. It was a little daunting at first. But the confidence given to me, especially from my father and Coach Brey, helped me get over the hump.”

Brey could have harassed Cooley, or perhaps shamed him into fighting through the barriers that were preventing him from playing more minutes. But he took a sympathetic, reasoned approach with Cooley, and it now appears to be paying off.

“I think we had more of a mental hang-up with that sometimes,” said Brey of Cooley’s stamina. “We certainly addressed it and did some tests on it. When I said, ‘Can you play more than 22?’ he said, ‘I can go longer.’ It’s funny how when you’re playing well, you’re not as winded.”

In seven conference games, Cooley is averaging 12.9 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. The latter figure is second only to West Virginia’s Kevin Jones. Cooley leads the conference in Big East play with 5.0 offensive rebounds per game. He’s sixth in the league in field goal percentage (.548) and seventh in blocked shots (1.6 per game).

Now that they’ve found the secret to Cooley’s success, it’s a matter of pacing the big man through the final 11 regular-season games.

“I’ve also worked on trying to hide it a little bit,” laughed Cooley of the fatigue that sometimes hits him. “But I haven’t been getting that tired lately. It’s been surprising.

“Against Syracuse, no one was going to get tired with how the game was going. Coach does a good job of subbing. He does an amazing job at finding good times to sit me down for a little bit.”

“We’ve tried to steal him a rest every now and then, and then when we do change defenses, he doesn’t move much from the middle of the paint, which is what we want,” Brey said. “So that’s helped him. But I think it’s very psychological now. He’s feeling good.

“(Since) the Louisville game, I’ve had to be careful about how we pace him in practice and how we get him recovery time because he is taking a beating physically more than anybody else on our team.”

The more pounding Cooley takes, the more he feels on top of his game.

“It was key to get that out of the way,” said Cooley of his stamina issues. “It’s allowed me to work on the physical things that can help my game.

“I’ve never been the most well-conditioned guy on the team. But I’ve come a long way. Beyond having to (conserve) my (energy) on certain plays, it’s great to go out there at full speed, 100 percent, the entire time.”



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