Jack Cooley's rapid rise continues at ND

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- On the first day of the last step of Jack Cooley's climb to Big East player of the year candidate, his coach's reaction told the story.

Amidst a 17-point outing against camp roommate and Duke star Mason Plumlee on Day 1 of the Adidas Nations camp in August, Cooley entered a huddle inside the crowded Garden Grove, Calif., gymnasium and was greeted by Denver Nuggets assistant Melvin Hunt with surprise.

"I scored like the first 10 points of that game, and our coach was just like: 'Didn't see that one coming. All right then, cool,'" the Notre Dame big man recalled with a sheepish grin.

"So there were a couple people in shock at first, but then they got used to it."

The validation that Cooley was more than a Luke Harangody look-alike and one of the nation's best big men came in the form of a five-day camp out West that pitted the 6-foot-9 forward against many of the game's marquee names.

What Cooley discovered in averaging nine points and six rebounds off nearly 66 percent shooting was that he belonged with those names, a fact he confirmed with his Day 1 performance, prompting him to call his father in excitement.

"It was just a shocker to get there at first," Cooley said. "It was just the who's who of every team. It didn't matter, shoe affiliation or not, everyone was there. And just to play the way I played really was kind of an eye-opener, to see that I can do this against teams that are full of high-caliber players."

Which made the trip worthwhile.

"I wanted him there because it made him feel like, 'Hmmm, I am special. I'm out here with these kind of all-stars,'" Irish coach Mike Brey said. "He needs to think of himself like that. As much it was physical, it was very much mental in motivation."

Contrast that with a year ago, when the relatively unknown big man averaged fewer than five points and just seven rebounds per game for a 5-3 team that looked left for dead following a season-ending knee injury to Tim Abromaitis and a 20-point loss at Gonzaga.

The flu kept Cooley out of the Irish's next game, against Maryland, and he had to watch alone from the St. Liam Hall infirmary while his team struggled to another defeat.

"You're surprised how much you think when you're just sitting by yourself in a hospital room," he said.

A heart-to-heart with his father followed.

"You need to go out there and just play," Jack Sr. recalled telling his son. "Stop thinking so much, stop worrying about what you have to do, what you don't have to do. You know how to play this game -- go play it. You've got to turn yourself around. You're kind of lethargic out there and kind of unsure of yourself.

"I think that was a great little starting point from that point forward."

Consecutive 22-point outings proved that claim correct before Cooley carried that production the rest of the way, earning most improved player honors and second-team All-Big East recognition by averaging 14.6 points and 10.2 rebounds in conference play.

Notre Dame rode a school-best nine-game Big East winning streak -- which included a takedown of undefeated Syracuse -- to a third-place finish in the conference, and Cooley leads a group that returns all five starters and welcomes two ready-made freshmen along with Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman, who is now eligible.

Whereas last year's Notre Dame team talked about trying to make the NCAA tournament, this year's is aiming for its first Big East title.

Whereas last year's unproven Cooley was hesitant to speak up, this year's has coaches and teammates talking about the 246-pounder as a more vocal leader, and everyone has referred to him as a captain, though that title has yet to be officially bestowed upon him.

Asked if he had yelled at any teammates yet, Cooley paused and laughed before confirming that yes, he is no longer afraid to get in the faces of peers who are slacking -- frightening even himself at just how natural it came to him.

"I've literally thought about it that way, where I thought to myself, I could probably say something right now, this situation needs to be changed," he said. "But it's gotten a lot better. It's gotten more fluid because it's more basic and instinctive for me to do it."

Offseason pick-up games with the same guys for three months could often get monotonous, and so Cooley would be the guy to break the stupor.

Few saw this coming, and now Notre Dame is thinking its potential final Big East season could be its best.

"Just speaking up in those types of situations, like, 'Let's get our heads together, this is an ugly game' -- that's where I think it just shows the kind of growth he's had over the year," sixth-year senior Scott Martin said.

"It would've been a stretch I think three years ago, and I think he would admit that, too. But he really rose to the occasion and he's grown a lot as a leader over this summer. As a senior now he believes in what he's saying, and he's right. So I think that's a big step for him and a big step for this team."