A non-factor through much of Notre Dame's non-conference schedule, Jack Cooley has been at the center of the team's offense during an impressive run through the Big East.
Cooley will try to help the 23rd-ranked Irish win eight straight conference games for the first time in 11 years Saturday night when they visit Villanova, which could be without two starters.After moving into the AP Top 25 for the first time this season Monday, Notre Dame (18-8, 10-3) won its seventh in a row with a 71-53 victory over Rutgers on Wednesday.Cooley recorded his third straight double-double, scoring 17 of his career-high-tying 22 points in the second half. He also had a career-best 18 rebounds, including eight offensive boards.The 6-foot-9 junior is averaging 21.7 points and 14.7 rebounds the last three games while totaling 17 offensive rebounds."That's what we expect from him," sophomore guard Eric Atkins said. "When he plays like that, we are really hard to beat."Cooley scored in double figures in just one of Notre Dame's first eight games, but he now has nine double-doubles on the season -- seven in conference play.His surge has made the Irish perhaps the hottest team in the Big East. Notre Dame's winning streak includes three victories over ranked opponents, beginning against then-No. 1 Syracuse on Jan. 21, and it has the Irish tied for second place in the conference -- two games behind the Orange in the loss column.Cooley credits his improvement to the increased pressure teammates Jerian Grant and Atkins are facing. Grant, the Irish's leading scorer, had just five field-goal attempts Wednesday while Atkins was held below his scoring average (12.8 ppg) for the second time in three games."We're having a blast," senior Scott Martin said. "We don't care who has the most points. As long as we get the win, everyone is happy. It's always a great atmosphere to be in."Notre Dame also continues to do an excellent job defensively, holding opponents to an average of 55.3 points on 38.3 percent shooting during the winning streak. The Irish haven't won eight consecutive conference games since the 2000-01 season."As long as we keep playing defense the way we are, I think we can keep this up," Atkins said. "I think that's where it starts."Notre Dame has a good chance to keep rolling Saturday with Villanova (11-14, 4-9) likely to be missing two starters.Leading scorer Maalik Wayns suffered a sprained MCL in his left knee earlier this month and did not play in a 65-51 loss at South Florida on Wednesday. He is doubtful for Saturday.Meanwhile, sophomore guard James Bell suffered a sprained left ankle in the second half against the Bulls and will be out the next two games.Wayns ranks fourth in the Big East with 17.8 points per game while Bell is averaging 7.5."Obviously we would miss both of those guys, but this is an opportunity for some of our younger guys to contribute and gain experience," coach Jay Wright said.Without Wayns on Wednesday, the Wildcats lost for the fourth time in five games. They shot a season-worst 30.2 percent and gave up 45 points in the second half. Maurice Sutton, who scored 10 points in just 17 minutes off the bench, was the only Villanova player to finish in double figures.The Wildcats have dropped nine in a row against teams in the Top 25, including a 93-72 loss at then-No. 8 Notre Dame last season.