The Iowa freshman knows Purdue's Caleb Swanigan will be a huge obstacle Thursday.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The preseason fanfare surrounding Iowa’s prized freshman has subsided.
Tyler Cook’s Hawkeye basketball debut has been sidetracked by a lengthy injury break, a couple of run-ins with foul trouble and some recent late-game pine time.
The 6-foot-9 forward out of St. Louis has shown his talent in flashes. He’s still a starter, averaging 12.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. It’s just that other Hawkeyes have risen up to share the rookie spotlight with Cook.
Cook, a particularly thoughtful 19-year-old, considered the question Wednesday.
“Coaches told us what was going to happen, and they haven’t lied to us,” he answered. “Just as much as any other freshman in the country, you live and you learn, especially in this league.
“You guys have seen me play pretty well. You guys have seen me play not so well. So I just want to stack good performances on top of each other.”
Cook is coming off his poorest statistical outing of the season: four points and two rebounds while playing only 21 minutes in Sunday’s victory over Rutgers. How he bounces back against No. 19 Purdue at 8 p.m. Thursday (BTN) in Carver-Hawkeye Arena will reveal much about Cook’s resolve.
No one questions his skill.
“When you look at his body of work, considering what he’s been through, I think it’s been pretty impressive,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.
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That resume shows a 24-point night against Seton Hall, in Cook’s third college game. It reveals 17 points and seven rebounds in 33 gutty minutes against Memphis, as he was playing with the broken right index finger that required surgery and soon cost him seven games.
Cook returned just in time for Big Ten Conference play and a Dec. 28 date at Purdue. He came off the bench in that one, his overmatched team already trailing big, and promptly picked up three fouls. He responded with 10 of his 12 points in the second half as the Hawkeyes (10-7, 2-2 Big Ten) fell 89-67.
Cook’s best Big Ten game was his next, 11 points and eight rebounds in an overtime victory against Michigan. He played the crunch-time minutes in that one, but not the next two: a double-overtime loss at Nebraska (more foul trouble) and the Rutgers win.
Cook’s averages in Big Ten play: 9.8 points and 4.8 rebounds on 50-percent shooting. Any freshman would be proud to make that kind of contribution, and Cook certainly isn’t hanging his head.
It’s just that expectations were so much higher for a recruit who ranked 38th on the ESPN 100 list coming out of Chaminade College Prep.
In Cook’s absence, his roommate and friend Cordell Pemsl elevated his play. Pemsl, a 6-8 freshman forward from Dubuque, averaged 15 points and 5.4 rebounds in the seven games Cook missed. This was a welcome development for the Hawkeyes, and the two are ecstatic to be surprisingly starting alongside each other now.
But it’s complicated, because both of them are at their best with the ball in their hands no more than two dribbles from the basket. They rarely had practiced playing together and are still smoothing out the awkwardness of that, especially in the transition game the Hawkeyes prefer.
“We’re kind of finding each other’s sweet spots where we like to catch the ball. And we’re getting used to, who’s going to run down in the paint? Who’s going to trail? Who’s going to be on the perimeter?” Cook said.
“We were both used to just running down to the block or running out to the middle of the paint. But now we’ve got to look and say, ‘OK, where is he and where do I need to be?’ I think that’s going to make us smarter and more effective players, ultimately.”
That’s undoubtedly true. The long view shows that Cook and Pemsl may have 3½ more years to figure this out together. Cook’s explosiveness and Pemsl’s savvy can be a potent offensive tandem.
But first up is the Boilermakers (14-3, 3-1), the biggest handful in the Big Ten for opposing post players. Caleb Swanigan, at 6-9, averages 18.3 points and leads the nation at 12.9 rebounds. Isaac Haas is 7-2 — “I’ve never seen anyone that big in my life,” Cook marveled — and comes off the bench to average 13.4 and 5.5.
Cook conceded that his showing against Rutgers, a game in which he made only 1-of-6 shots, stung. Hawkeye fans have yet to see the full range of what he can offer, he said in a tone of voice that suggested they will before the season is out.
“Nobody wants to come out and play poorly. But just like a great performance, you’ve got to learn from it and move on,” Cook said.
“There’s things that people haven’t seen that I know I can do. I’m nowhere near where I’m going to be.”
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