The past couple of days has spawned plenty of talk about who the most improved player in the country is, a debate that seems to center about big men this season.
The name that every seems to mention first is Kansas big man Jeff Withey, who has gone from an afterthought in the Jayhawk’s team scrimmages to a guy coming within a single block of a triple-double in a win at Kansas State. It would be tough to argue against a guy that has made one of the favorite for National Player of the Year become a secondary discussion point the past three games.
Syracuse center Fab Melo is another great option. He’s gone from a starter in the decorative sense of the word to Syracuse’s most valuable piece defensively. Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng, Wichita State’s Garrett Stutz and Illinois’ Meyers Leonard are all big men that have made a name for themselves nationally this season.
But none of them would be my pick for the country’s most-improved player.
That award goes to Jack Cooley, the Notre Dame center that was strictly known as “Hey, don’t he look like Luke Harangody?” prior to this season.
Cooley is averaging 11.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg and 1.6 bpg while shooting 61.1% from the floor, impressive number for a kid that came into the season with just four double-digit scoring games under his belt. The scary thing, however, is that Cooley just keeps getting better and better. He won his first career Big East player of the week award last week after averaging 21.5 ppg, 13.5 rpg and 2.5 bpg in two wins and followed that up with 22 points and 18 boards (eight offensive) in a 71-53 win over Rutgers.
You have to think that, eventually, Cooley is going to come back to earth, but the 6’9″, 248 lb center — who Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said “was a beast” on Wednesday night — keeps improving as his confidence continues to grow.
What allows Cooley to be so successful is that he doesn’t need plays run for him in order to score. He’s terrific on the offensive glass, as he’s strong enough to hold position in the paint and he has snapping turtle hands; once he’s got the ball in his grip, you ain’t getting it out. His OR% of 16.9 ranks him eighth nationally according to Kenpom.
But Cooley is more than just an offensive rebounder. He also has a knack for getting himself open when Notre Dame’s talented back court of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant penetrate, and the guards are willing to give him the ball now that they know he’ll finish it around the rim.
“Those two find ways to get me the ball. I don’t even think I’m open,” Cooley said. “I’m telling them not to pass it and they give it to me and I’m wide open. They’re just great passers.”
Notre Dame better hope Atkins and Grant are great scorers, too, because if Cooley continues to play like this, he may not find himself open all that often anymore.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.