SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - Notre Dame coach Mike Brey can't believe how Jack Cooley has blossomed into a leader for the Fighting Irish, especially after wondering whether the 6-foot-9, 245-pound forward would ever get serious about basketball.
"He's going to be better than I ever imagined as a leader. He's already been better than we thought as a player," Brey said.
Cooley had a breakthrough season in 2011-12, going from being a dependable reserve averaging 3.7 points and 3.1 rebounds a game as a sophomore to an integral player averaging 12.5 points and 8.9 rebounds in helping the Irish go 22-12, finish third in the Big East and earn an NCAA berth.
They'll try to begin improving on last season's results when they host Evansville on Saturday.
Brey is counting on Cooley to lead a squad that returns all five starters and added 6-10 Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman and freshmen forwards Cameron Biedscheid and Zach Auguste. The other returning starters are guards Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins, who both averaged more than 12 points a game last season, sixth-year player Scott Martin and Pat Connaughton.
There are high expectations for the No. 22 Irish, who enter the season ranked No. 22 and are picked to finish third in the Big East. Brey wants the Irish aiming higher, though, and has them talking about trying to win their first Big East regular-season title before leaving for the ACC.
"If we handle our business on the road to trying to win a Big East regular-season championship, the other stuff will fall in place," Cooley said.
Cooley's turnaround began about a third of the way through last season. After averaging less than five points and seven rebounds through the first eight games, he averaged 15 points and almost 10 rebounds a game the rest of the season.
"All of a sudden to Jack, `Hey, basketball is important seven days a week, not every other day and video games in between.' He's really become a focused guy," Brey said.
Cooley concedes he didn't always put basketball first. When he saw the Irish needed him to step up, he decided it was time to get serious.
"I really just sat down and thought just get rid of all my other distractions because basketball is too big a deal, it's too important for this university, for me to have other things get in the way," he said.
He scored 22 points in back-to-back games against Maine and Dartmouth in early December. But his first big game against major competition came when he scored 18 points and pulled down 10 rebounds in a double-overtime victory over then-No. 11 Louisville, playing 43 minutes.
"He was a guy we were worried about minutes and fatigue. In that game he was such a physical force and part of a big win and made big plays for us," Brey said. "I thought that was the game he started to believe and started to get confidence."
Cooley said that game showed him could play most of a game at a high level.
Cooley became a major force as the Irish won nine straight, starting with 17 points and 10 rebounds against a previously unbeaten top-ranked Syracuse team to start a school-record nine-game win streak against Big East teams. Cooley averaged 16 points and 11 rebounds a game during the run and finished the season with 13 double-doubles.
There were also some down games along the way. He was held to two points and no rebounds in 25 minutes of a 59-41 loss against Georgetown in the second-to-last regular-season game and had nine points and one rebound against South Florida in the first round of the Big East tournament.
Cooley worked this season on making sure he's in better shape so he'll be ready for the physical Big East play. He's also taken a more of a vocal role on the team. He said it was hard at times last season, but he realized it was something he needed to do. That's what has Brey so excited. He's seen Cooley continue to become a leader that teammates listen to.
"I never thought we'd get to that point. That was not a goal. I just wanted him serious about him," Brey said. "I'm thrilled about the jumps he's made and he's going in really hungry."
Cooley and the Irish face Evansville for the first time since a 76-70 Notre Dame victory Dec. 6, 1992. The Irish are 4-0 at home against their in-state foe.
The Aces are led by senior swingman Colt Ryan, who averaged 20.5 points last season and was second in the Missouri Valley Conference in scoring. Ryan helped Evansville finish 16-16 and qualify for the College Basketball Invitational in 2011-12.