Senior center Jack Cooley relishes the impact of setting the perfect pick. After the 6'9" 246-pounder crushed DePaul guard Brandon Young with a Stonehenge screen last February, Young wobbled around the floor like a cartoon character seeing stars. "If he stumbles and maybe falls," Cooley says, smiling at the memory, "those are the best ones."
Cooley's cement screens help keep the Notre Dame motion offense flowing and open up a shot or driving lane for dynamic guards Eric Atkins, Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton. They also go a long way toward overhauling the reputation of the Irish, who for much of coach Mike Brey's 12-year tenure have been described with words like savvy and cerebral. "He's been an enforcer for us," Brey says. "People look at him like he's crazy after he gets a rebound and turns and knocks someone down. And he is."
Backing up super scorer Luke Harangody as a freshman, Cooley earned his minutes by screening, scrapping and boarding. He's remained true to his blue-collar roots as he's emerged as a top-line Big East center (he was voted the league's most improved player last year) who's now the anchor of an NCAA title contender. Considering that Notre Dame hasn't reached the Sweet 16 since 2003, that may sound lofty, but all five starters return from a team that went 13--5 in conference play, and they'll welcome 6'10" center Garrick Sherman, a transfer from Michigan State.
The Irish have a penchant for crumbling under high preseason expectations and a tortured recent tournament history—they've lost to a lower seed in four of their last five trips. But Brey feels this bunch is better equipped for the regular and post season. Don't be surprised if Cooley's career arc, which began with making people see stars, ends with his becoming one in March.
ROUND OF 32
ROUND OF 64
Projected Starting Five
COACH Mike Brey (13th season)
2011--12 RECORD 22--12
BIG EAST 13--5 (3rd)
WHAT'S BACK Minutes: 88.6% Points: 88.7% Rebounds: 92.8%
*Michigan State stats
‚Ä†High school stats
24 AGE of starting forward Scott Martin, a sixth-year senior glue guy whom Brey calls "the best leader in the country." Garrick Sherman, 22, and Jack Cooley, 21, give Brey a trio of savvy post vets.
JACK COOLEY The senior showed last year that he's more than just a scrapper, raising his scoring average by 8.8 points.