By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
If this were a Hollywood production, rather than an ESPN one, it would be billed something like “Freddy Vs. Jason” or “Alien Vs. Predator” or “King Kong Vs. Godzilla” rather than West Virginia University vs. Notre Dame.
ESPN would prefer you to think of it as a basketball game, but when you break it down the real attraction is not the team competition but, instead, it is the Monster Vs. Monster aspect of this that will turn Notre Dame’s home arena into a back lot a Hollywood studio.
This is Deniz Kilicli against Jack Cooley, the two big men, the two men who make their teams go.
Indeed, there are supporting casts of good players, some event great, which is why this is an important late-season basketball game, Notre Dame looking to keep its winning streak that has gone into six weeks intact as it rolls toward the Big East Tournament and West Virginia trying to assure itself at last the .500 record it now possesses to take into that same tournament.
“I think if we are 9-9 we’re OK,” said WVU coach Bob Huggins, who at times could be cast as Godzilla himself, “but I’d feel a lot better at 10-8.”
He is talking about getting into the NCAA Tournament, which once appeared a cinch but now needs for West Virginia to be … well, a monster down the stretch.
Cooley has crawled out of some hole in the earth to become some kind of combination of Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man to the Big East teams that have tried to stop him.
Until the middle of the season, this clone of one-time Notre Dame star Luke Harangody – honest, their mothers couldn’t tell them apart – was a mild-mannered big man around whom Notre Dame played.
He was known simply as a nice guy, a kid who off the court had a sense of humor but on the court didn’t have a sense of direction.
Now his on-court disposition, according to his coach Mike Brey, is of a man “eating raw meat.”
Basketball has become his passion. In his past four games, he has averaged 20.8 points a game along with 14.3 rebounds, earning 21 points and 12 rebounds when Notre Dame beat WVU, 55-50, a couple of weeks back.
“It was just coming into the gym a little more and focusing on school and basketball and really nothing else,” Cooley told the Chicago Tribune this week.
“My day consists of waking up, eat, class, eat, basketball, eat, sleep. That’s really it. I’ll watch half a (basketball) game maybe and go to bed. I just know I have to focus. I’m too big a part of this team now to do anything else.”
Someone wondered why he had kept this villainous big man hidden for so long?
“I didn’t realize how important I was,” Cooley answered. “I should have started doing this way long ago.”
In Kilicli he comes across someone who is big enough and physical enough to match him, although he, like Cooley, is a gentle monster off the court who will sign an autograph for a hero-worshipping child or kick back and relax with his guitar.
Head-to-head with Cooley in the Notre Dame game he scored 22 points and had five rebounds and, like Cooley, has been playing his best of late, averaging 16.6 points a game over the last five games.
More than that, like Cooley, he is taking it upon himself to get better, just as he is self taught on his guitar.
“I’m going to change what I did wrong today,” he said following the Notre Dame loss. “If everyone does that, the team gets better. I can’t worry about what the other guy is doing. That will frustrate us, if everyone worries about the other guy.”
“After St. John’s, I was shooting bad so I looked at film and found the reason,” he said. “Then Huggs showed me some stuff. Now I am scoring better.”
It is necessary because WVU is going to have beat Notre Dame inside, do it with Kilicli banging with Cooley and with Kevin Jones hitting the offensive boards and with guards Gary Browne and Jabarie Hinds slashing to the basket while everyone holds his breath and hopes that Truck Bryant has his outside shot dropping.
The task is a monster, so to speak, for Notre Dame just doesn’t lose at home, and the way the Fighting Irish are going this doesn’t seem to be a particularly vulnerable team for an upset.
Yet, if Kilicli can in his Godzilla mood and Bryant can hit a few 3s, this team is capable of anything … good or bad.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.