Maybe not quite at his listed height of 6'9" but doubtless all of his 246 pounds, senior Irish center Jack Cooley technically looks up to teammates and fellow February bangers Tom Knight, Garrick Sherman, and Zach Auguste, each 6'10 and each suddenly part of the team's game day proceedings.
But Cooley doesn't have to look up to many across the college landscape in 2013, yesterday named one of 30 finalists for the coveted Wooden Award presented annually to the nation's best player.
One of four Big East players on the list, Cooley has renewed late-season energy thanks to the efforts of his formerly forgotten teammates.
"It is really helpful," said Cooley of a new rotation that gives him not only an initial first half break, but the occasional spell throughout as well. "It helps my body not get beat to heck. And they can go in, draw fouls, we can go in and get the (free throws). I'm really happy with the system.
"I couldn't' think of a better time of the season to start clicking like this."
That system includes a platoon of the freshman Auguste, the senior transfer Sherman, and freshman swingman Cam Biedscheid entering the contest sometime between the first and second official timeout of the first half. Cooley, his classmate Knight, and sophomore swingman Pat Connaughton generally take their first break, and from there, especially up front, minutes are earned by merit.
"I've challenged Jack, 'We're playing four big guys. Put me in a position where these other three big guys are trying to figure out who' going to play with you for most of the night," said head coach Mike Brey. "That's when he's at his best. When he defends and rebounds. Put me in a position where I can't take you out.
"When he's that, we have a shot against anybody."
Late-BloomerLosers of three of four and mired at 3-3 in conference play prior to a January 26 noon tip-off at South Florida, senior power forward Tom Knight earned his first start.
Knight hit for a career-best 17 points that day, missing just twice in 10 attempts. Notre Dame has won seven of its last nine since that innocuous matchup vs. the Big East's cellar dweller (though the Bulls are the only team to beat Georgetown in nearly a 50-day period), and Knight has thrived playing off his classmate Cooley.
"Having Tom there and how he crashes the boards is huge," said Cooley. "His movement away from when I have the ball is phenomenal, he knows exactly where to go. We know where we can find each other. The majority of my assists are to him, so its great to see us both out there."
Those assists are generally the result of a mid-range jumper or backdoor and dunk, as Knight carved out an immediate niche in a half-court offense in need of a spark.
He's connected on 31 of 57 shots as a starter, with half of those misses part of a two-game slump in road games vs. DePaul and Syracuse. He's thus 28 of 42 from the floor in seven remaining starts since the Irish have climbed back into title contention.
Sunday afternoon in a blowout win over Cincinnati, Knight hit his first offering. From there to a 6 for 7 shooting effort adding seven boards and three assists in 25 cooly efficient minutes.
"Whenever I hit the first shot I get a little more confident," Knight admitted. "If I missed, I'd still shoot it again, but whenever that first one goes in you (hunt for it) a little more."
Knight, who has 14 blocked shots in his nine starts, was more interested in discussing the other end of the floor.
"In the past, guys wouldn't really worry much about us (defensively) in the post because we were smaller (as a team)," he offered. "Now they know they can't just drive and try to get to the basket because they have two 6'10" guys waiting on the back lines."
Bruised and BatteredNotre Dame's most recent win, a 62-41 bundling of the Bearcats, offers the ideal minutes distribution for an eight-man rotation that employs four center/power forwards, with two on the floor in all but specialized situations.
Cooley (26 minutes, 11 points, 8 boards), Knight (25 minutes, 12 points, 7 rebounds), Sherman (14 minutes, 4 points, 5 boards), and Auguste (12 minutes (9 rebounds including 4 offensive) owned the Bearcats at both rims.
"Those guys coming in always add a spark," said junior captain Eric Atkins. "Zach does a great job getting us second shots. Sherm gives us energy scoring baskets."
They quartet did the same in their previous outing at Pittsburgh, combining for 81 minutes (though a whopping 38 from Cooley) with 21 points, 21 boards, and four blocks in a 51-42 win.
Common to both contests: the Panthers and Bearcats ranked first in Big East play in terms of rebounding defense (Pittsburgh) and rebounding offense (Cincinnati). The pair was however out-rebounded by the suddenly bruising Irish by an obscene margin, 83-52, with Notre Dame limiting Pittsburgh first, then Cincinnati, to the lowest point total allowed by the program in 18 seasons of Big East play.
"It has to be a real emphasis in our practices," said Brey of the team's battering mentality. "I don't want to get anybody hurt, but I have to be on that more. When we go with that mindset, especially playing two bigs, we have to throw ourselves around. If there's a problem (foul trouble), I can throw another big in."
Said Knight of the defensive intensity, "Defense is something we can control. If you can up the effort on the defensive end, we will get stops. So that's what's been going on recently. A lot of practice has been dedicated to defense recently. As the season has gone on its become more and more important for us."
Defense and rebounding. Cooley and his cohorts. Survival of the biggest.
"There was a play in the second half (vs. Pittsburgh) where we're on offense where a rebound was bouncing toward our bench on the baseline about 15 feet out. (Cooley) was swimming through Pitt bodies to try to get there. That is Jack Cooley, on either end of the floor."
That has to be Notre Dame if the program is to finally march through March.