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Notre Dame came around as Jack Cooley did last season

Jack Cooley (center) looks for an out against Xavier’s defense last March NCAA tournament. | Chuck Burton~AP

Jack Cooley (center) looks for an out against Xavier’s defense last March in the NCAA tournament. | Chuck Burton~AP

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Updated: December 11, 2012 6:04AM

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Jack Cooley had the flu, and it made Jerian Grant sick. Notre Dame was playing at Maryland on Dec. 4 last year, less than 15 miles from Grant’s hometown of Bowie. Cooley missed the game, the Irish lost, and Grant confronted the 6-9 Glenbrook South grad and laid into him.

Come on, Jack, that was my hometown team that we just lost to. I really wanted to get that win. You can play through some sickness.

‘‘I was mad at him,’’ Grant said.

Cooley got the message. On and off the court, physically, mentally and vocally, it was time for a change.

It happened almost overnight. Cooley’s flu got better, his game got better and the Irish got better.

Four days after Maryland, Cooley — who had 12 points and 15 rebounds in his previous four games combined — put up 22 points and 14 rebounds in a win over Maine. Two nights later against Dartmouth, he had 22 and nine. He went on to post 11 double-doubles against Big East opponents, leading the Irish to a surprising 22-win season before a first-round NCAA tournament exit. He was even named the Big East’s Most Improved Player.

But the improvement on the court was nothing compared with the improvement off of it. Cooley put down the video games and picked up more game film. He stopped working out on his own early in the morning and joined the team for group workouts. And he stopped sitting quietly in the corner and became a vocal force in the locker room and on the court.

‘‘I’m just now focused on solely the basketball and school — they’re the only two focuses in my life right now,’’ Cooley said. ‘‘And it’s working out pretty well.’’

Coach Mike Brey never saw it coming.

‘‘I’m shocked and so pleased to see the maturity of this guy,’’ Brey said. ‘‘His teammates were down on him as a young guy — there were days he didn’t want to do it, days he was tired. Now he’s really respected. When he says something, they’re going to listen to him. I never thought we’d get to that point.’’

Neither did his teammates, who didn’t know what to make of the Luke Harangody look-alike who only seemed to show up when he was required to.

‘‘It was weird,’’ Grant said. ‘‘Nobody ever really saw him on the court or with us. He was always by himself. But eventually, he started being one of the guys, and I think that really helped.’’

Now, as a senior, it all comes easier for Cooley — the physical play on the court, the time commitment off the court, and yes, the vocal leadership in the locker room, in the huddle, and in his teammates’ faces.

This is his team now. And Cooley 2.0 is out to make sure none of his teammates resembles the unreliable original.

‘‘I definitely get into people’s faces when things aren’t taken as seriously as they should be,’’ Cooley said of the occasional screamfest. ‘‘It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. It really came pretty natural. It’s a little frightening, really.’’

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