In four seasons with Notre Dame, forward Jack Cooley has grown into a rebounding force. Though his numbers in high school should have hinted at the extent of his current dominance, Cooley was quiet in his first few seasons with the Irish. He bided his time, studying under the tutelage of big men like Luke Harangody. Then, in his junior season, he emerged.
At Glenbrook South High in Glenview, IL, Cooley was a three-year starter. He missed the latter half of his senior season due to a thumb injury, but before he went down, Cooley was averaging 20.5 points, 13.5 rebounds and 4.5 blocks per game. He was nominated for the McDonald’s All-American team, and was recruited by a number of DI schools, eventually opting to attend Notre Dame.
After averaging merely 2.4 points and 2.5 rebounds in his first two seasons, Cooley stepped up in his junior year, leading the team in both points (12.5) and boards (8.9) per game. He tallied consecutive double-doubles in one prolific four-game stretch, including a 22-point, 18-rebound outing against Rutgers. His breakout campaign ultimately earned him the Big East Most Improved Player of the Year award and a nomination to the All-Big East Second-Team.
This season, teams went back to the drawing board to try and figure out ways to stop Cooley on the boards, but little has worked. Instead of slowing him down, he’s averaging career-highs in points (13.1), rebounds (10.3) and minutes (29.6).
In a recent interview with SLAMonline, Cooley talked about his favorite memories in South Bend, the complexity of rebounding, and what’s next for him after college basketball.
SLAM: So let’s start at the beginning. How’d you end up playing for Notre Dame?
JC: In the end it came down to three schools: Notre Dame, Illinois and Wisconsin. What my AAU program made me do was sit down and make a plus and minuses chart for each of the three schools to help me decide on one. At the time when you’re deciding on which college to go to it’s like the biggest decision of your life. So they had me treat it like a business so I could make the best decision. And when it came down to it, Notre Dame was the only one that didn’t have any marks on the negative side of the chart.
SLAM: When you got to South Bend, what were your expectations as far as playing time and your role on the team?
JC: My freshman year, I knew I wasn’t going to play very much. Luke Harangody was there, that was his senior year, and I knew I wasn’t going to get much playing time, which I was fine with. I was fine playing behind him and learning from him, one of the best players in Notre Dame history. I realized that my first couple years would be a learning experience.
SLAM: You really showed out in your junior season, starting almost every game for the Irish and putting up career numbers. What changed between your sophomore and junior year?
JC: I lost a lot of weight, about 30 pounds. So I could play more minutes. And I just realized that at Notre Dame the seniors and upperclassmen play a lot. So when you move up in the program, it’s your time to step up and start playing or you’re going to let your teammates down. And I realized in my junior year that if I didn’t step up, then we weren’t going to have a good season. From that point on, my play increased a lot and it’s worked out pretty well.
SLAM: What sorts of skills did you work on during the offseason?
JC: I have a personal trainer back home that I worked out with everyday. We worked on my foot speed and post moves a lot. He’d also give me some tips about rebounding, but mainly I worked on foot speed and offensive moves. I took a lot of steps forward that summer and it really showed during the year.
SLAM: So at this point, how do you see yourself as a player? What are some of your strengths and weaknesses?
JC: I mean it’s changed so much. Now, my main strength is rebounding and the fact that I’ve developed a scoring strength to go along with that has been phenomenal to see. Just being able to score as well as I can, it’s just been a dramatic change. There are a couple weaknesses and things I can improve upon, but I’m just trying to get better every day. But I’m almost in disbelief of how far I’ve come since my freshman year.
SLAM: What’s your favorite part about the game of basketball?
JC: On the court, there’s really no time in my life that I’m happier, whether it’s games or practices. Nothing’s wrong. There’s no outside problems, no homework, no drama, no stress, there’s nothing. Just basketball. That’s what I love so much. It’s just a relief from everything. I’ve never played basketball and not had fun.
SLAM: Your rebounding skills obviously aren’t a secret any longer. So can you walk me through your thought process when a shot goes up, and sort of explain what goes into rebounding?
JC: There’s a lot that goes into the art of rebounding. Hustle and intensity is a huge part of it, and luck is a big part of it too. But there’s a lot that goes through my mind when a shot goes up that I’ve learned from playing. On the offensive end, I look to see who’s shooting to see what type of shot they’re putting up, and what kind of arc it’ll have. What time of the game it is, so you can see if the shot’s going to go long or short, depending on if the player’s tired or not. Also, how well they were defended because if the ball got tipped I could get to it faster. And how it ends up coming off the rim. There are a lot of things that have to get processed really quickly.
SLAM: What kinds of measures are other teams taking to negate your ability to crash the boards?
JC: Last year was the first time they started doing this and they’ve done it almost every game since. They double-team rebound me. I’ve never had it happen until last year at Georgetown. And I was in shock because when you beat one guy, it’s an accomplishment, and then when you have another guy to get through, you’re almost guaranteed to be out of the play. But now that it happens a lot more, I’ve gotten used to it. Sometimes I use the other players to their own disadvantage, using them against each other and getting them in each other’s way. And it is getting a little bit more difficult, but if it wasn’t a challenge, it wouldn’t be so much fun.
SLAM: Does anyone take any cheap shots, especially knowing what kind of rebounder you are?
JC: Yeah, some teams. Coach always warns me that teams are going to throw lots of substitutes in to try and get me tired and frustrated, but I enjoy physicality. That’s how I play. So it doesn’t always work as well as teams want it to. And sometimes it actually gets you mad and makes you play better.
SLAM: Defense and rebounding are some of the toughest things to practice on your own. How do you go about working on your craft in team practices and how do your teammates feel about getting knocked around?
JC: At first, they really disliked it. But now they’re used to it, and it kind of rubs off on them and they hit back. And like you said, it’s really hard to practice those skills on your own, so you need to make sure during practice time you focus on it during the few chances you get. Coach Brey does a great job of making sure we have ample time to scrimmage, so when the game comes around, we’re all prepared to play.