Notre Dame’s seven-game winning streak has afforded its players, staff, and fans an unexpected, pleasant surprise. Left for dead early, the Irish have emerged as true contenders late.
The run has also reinforced a development no one predicted pre-season: junior Jack Cooley is an all-Big East center.
This is the same Cooley of whom head coach Mike Brey warned on Media Day in October, that 25 minutes per night would likely be too taxing a task for his easily winded starting center.
Cooley has averaged nearly 31 minutes per night in league play despite off-season VO2 max tests that showed his body processes oxygen less effectively than most athletes.
The junior from Glenbrook, South HS lost weight, improved his aerobic resistance, and battled his way to seven double-doubles through 13 conference games. He leads the league with 4.8 offensive rebounds per game and ranks second to West Virginia’s Kevin Jones–the likely Big East MVP–at 10.5 boards per contest.
Cooley’s averaged a career-best 14.2 ppg. in league play, tied for 16th and first among the Irish. Cooley likewise leads Notre Dame with 1.8 blocks per game (tied for 4th in conference) and has connected on better than 60 percent of his Big East field goal attempts–2nd overall.
Should he continue at this pace over the final five games, Cooley is a lock for second team all-Big East in the pivot, challenging Syracuse defensive dominator Fab Melo for top honors.
But his recent run and Notre Dame’s winning streak is sure to bring Cooley, the reigning Big East Player of the Week (an award presented prior to his 22-point/18-board tour de force vs. Rutgers Wednesday), to the forefront of opposing game plans.
“The more (defensive) focus there is on me means there’s less on my teammates,” Cooley said of his emergence. “Everyone forgets Jerian (Grant) and Eric (Atkins) are knockdown shooters. The reason I’ve been scoring is they’ve probably been focusing on them so much. If they focus on me that’s fine; those guys will go for 20 points.”
Those guys, as well as four more of Cooley’s teammates, have hit for 20 or more points already this season. The team’s scoring balance, not to mention its early season lineup searches, offered the appearance that there’s no true “go-to-guy.”
That’s fine with the Irish, who have four if not five.
Cooley reference Grant and Atkins as knockdown shooters. It’s technically accurate with Grant at 36 percent and Atkins a shade under 40 (in 21 fewer attempts), but the compliment is one often afforded to Notre Dame players during Brey’s tenure. In this instance, it does the pair little justice.
Grant and Atkins are burgeoning college basketball geniuses. They know the game, running the show and creating on both ends of the floor: expertly running Brey’s Burn offense on one end while serving as the program’s quickest backcourt combo since John Macleod’s first season exactly two decades prior.
Between them they’ve earned two Big East Weekly Honor Roll nominations and a Rookie of the Week honor (Grant). The tandem has totaled double digits in 11 of 13 (Grant) and 9 of 13 (Atkins) conference matchups, and dished 116 assists while committing just 49 turnovers along the way.
Atkins has played in at least 39 minutes in 11 of 13 league contests; Grant at least 36 in all but three. The latter has averaged more than 13 ppg. in league play, hitting nearly 83 percent of his offerings from the charity stripe to lead the team.
“We’ve not had a backcourt with this gear,” Brey said of Grant and Atkins. “Those guys (ability) to get out in passing lanes, and with their quickness, and (ability to) stay in front of people, and with their length and quick hands to cause some turnovers – they get some timely deflections and turnovers.”
Classmates in school, Grant has three years of eligibility remaining and Atkins, a newly-minted and rare sophomore captain, two. The 2012 squad’s lone freshman, Pat Connaughton, joined Grant as a Big East Rookie of the Week honoree after his 23-point/11-rebound outing vs. #15 Marquette in early February.
Also a pitcher on the Irish baseball team, Connaughton possesses the highest vertical leap among Brey's squad; notable in that he’s developed a spot-up perimeter game during conference play.
“It’s a beautiful natural stroke. With the lift he has in his legs, he’s able to get great deep range. I just wanted him to think of himself as a shooter. He turned some things down as a young guy did early. He wanted to fit in. That’s good and that’s natural.
"But as we change as a team, and what we need as a team, the confidence comes more from those four other starters telling him, ‘You better shoot it,’ than from me.”
Connaughton lauded assistant coach Anthony Solomon for extra work with him to hone and trust his shooting stroke. He also added another unlikely aid to that end.
“I’m not going to lie to you, I’ve watched a lot of YouTube video of Allen Iverson,” Connaughton said of the future Basketball Hall of Famer and former Georgetown/Philadelphia 76ers standout. “Just the way (he) doesn’t think when he shoots. I had been doing that a lot as a freshman (asking), ‘What do you guys want me to do?’
“Really throughout the entire season it’s been a matter of them building me up that I’m not a freshman (anymore).”
Atkins offered his good friend Connaughton, whose weak side rebounding acumen ranks among the best for an Irish swingman in recent memory, might have snuck up on a few league foes.
"He definitely has the best (vertical leap) on our team," Atkins answered of Connaughton following the team's early-February evisceration of Marquette. "I think some teams don't expect (his athleticism) because, you know, he's white," he added with a chuckle.
The Grant/Atkins/Connaughton trio represent the three best 6’5”-and-under athletes the program has showcased since (at least) Chris Thomas, David Graves and Matt Carroll roamed the Joyce Center Floor together in 2002. But that trio was developed, with Graves a graduating senior and Carroll gone one season later. This trio will be around to torment foes for 2-3 more seasons.
“We have a lot of young guys with only one senior playing,” Grant offered after an upset win over #1 Syracuse. “It definitely sends a message to people that we’re going to be here for awhile.”
Luckily for Irish fans; they arrived early as well.