Notre Dame men's basketball: Irish bigs need to be physical with 7-0 Sacre
Had that not happened, Cooley might have started scheming over ways to flee for Purcell Pavilion. Sick or not, he simply had to give it a go.
“If it had been anything other than playing basketball (Sunday), I wouldn’t have done it,” Cooley said. “There was no way I was going to let them let me miss a game.
“I love playing so I had to play.”
Cooley will take a different approach into Wednesday’s game at No. 19 Gonzaga. Love of the game aside, he has to care a whole lot less about what might happen on the floor.
The 6-foot-9, 248-pound Cooley faces his first real test this season, his first as a full-time starter - defend power forward Robert Sacre. The 7-foot, 260-pound senior from North Vancouver, British Columbia, leads the Bulldogs (4-0) in scoring (17.0), rebounding (9.0) and blocks (5). He also is shooting 81.8 percent from the foul line, a place he has visited an average of 11 times per game.
Shooting 44 free throws in four games means he’s been able to do whatever he wants wherever he wants and whenever he wants around the basket - with little resistance from the opposition. That has to change Wednesday if Notre Dame (5-2) is to have a chance in what might be the most raucous atmosphere they’ll experience this season in the 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center.
To stop Sacre means Cooley has to compete.
“Jack’s got to be a main guy for us,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “Wednesday’s a night to be a main guy guarding a really good player.”
To prepare for Sacre, Cooley will draw on his experience last summer when he was part of the East Coast All-Stars, which spent five days in Estonia competing in the 2011 Four Nations Cup.
One game in Europe required Cooley to guard Zaza Pachulia, a 6-11, 275-pound forward for the Atlanta Hawks. Cooley threw out any cares or concerns about fouling or not playing well or worrying that he wasn’t up to the task. He just played.
Pachulia grabbed nine rebounds, but had only one basket. Cooley responded with seven points and nine rebounds in a 98-81 loss.
For him, it was a win.
“I just had the mindset of ‘Screw it. He may be an NBA player, but I’m going to shut him down,’” Cooley said. “I’m going to go into this game with the same mindset - I’m going to shut him down regardless of what happens.”
Guarding Sacre last December mainly fell on the shoulders of former Irish power forward Ty Nash, an undersized post defender who relied more on finesse than force. This year, it will be a tag-team effort. Cooley gets the first chance, but he will need a whole lot of help from fellow power forwards Mike Broghammer (6-9, 265) and Tom Knight (6-9, 250).
“Huge challenge for them,” Brey said of his bigs. “All three of them have to be ready.”
Three still might not be enough to slow Sacre.
“He’s a big dude,” Broghammer said. “He has a height advantage, but the way that me and Jack and Tom play defense is a little different than Ty. We’re more ‘bang you and hit you with our chests’ kind of defensive guys. We’ve got to use our bodies.
“I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Cooley knows the Irish have to do their defensive work early in possessions to limit easy looks deep in the lane. They have to use their burly builds to shove Sacre off the block, and make entry passes more difficult.
Most importantly, and what might be the biggest challenge for Cooley, is they have stay with Sacre, who often likes to beat the other big guys down the floor for easy transition baskets.
Above all, Cooley just wants to be more of the guy who went for 17 points and a career-high 11 rebounds for his first career double-double against Delaware State, and less of the one who offered no points and one rebound in the 29-point loss to Missouri, which shredded the Irish interior defense for 44 points in the paint.
Cooley is overdue for a big game. What better time to deliver than on the road against a big guy?
“I want to give a better showing than what I have,” said Cooley, averaging 4.7 points and a team-best 7.1 rebounds in 20.6 minutes a game. “I want to get back to playing basketball again.”
Staff writer Tom Noie: firstname.lastname@example.org 574-235-6153