Iowa needs Tyler Cook to be at his muscular best in first road game of season

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

BLACKSBURG, Va. — The Iowa men’s basketball team is going to need Tyler Cook to be a bully again Tuesday.

In his last game, Cook stormed through the Alabama-Birmingham defense for a career-high 29 points. He got to the free-throw line 16 times. He was too much to handle, and the Hawkeyes won 95-85 in the seventh-place game of the Cayman Islands Classic.

Now Iowa (4-2) goes into a hostile environment for the first time this year against a Virginia Tech team that is averaging 102 points per game, with all five starters scoring in double figures. Tipoff for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge game is at 8 p.m. at Cassell Coliseum (ESPN2).

Iowa's Tyler Cook goes up for an open shot during the Hawkeyes' game against Grambling State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017.

It’s unlikely that a Hawkeye team that is defensively challenged is going to shut down the Hokies (5-1). That means Cook, a 6-foot-9 sophomore forward, must help Iowa keep pace offensively.

He showed Wednesday that he is capable. But he also showed in a Nov. 20 loss to Louisiana that he can be quieted. Cook had six points, attempting only five shots in 22 minutes, in that 80-71 setback.

“The first game down there was difficult for him because they were really sending everybody into the post. They were selling out and we didn’t shoot it well. And so it was a strategy that worked for them,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Monday.

Cook followed with an 11-point effort in a loss to South Dakota State.

Then came his explosion against UAB.

“I challenged him at that point to sort of be a more dominant force, and clearly he was,” McCaffery said. “I just thought he was really active and pushed it and got on the glass. And that’s what we need from him every night and I think he’s figuring that out. I think we’ll see more of that moving forward.”

Cook is averaging 13.8 points and 6.2 rebounds. He will help the Hawkeyes have a size advantage Tuesday against a speedy Virginia Tech outfit that starts 6-10 sophomore Kerry Blackshear Jr. at center, but no one else over 6-5.

Cook, paired with 6-11 center Luka Garza, must make the smaller Hokies pay as often as possible. Because once they start running, they don’t stop.

“They’re as good a transition team as I’ve seen in a long time in terms of anybody can take it, anybody can shoot it, anybody can finish it,” McCaffery said of Virginia Tech, whose lone loss was 77-71 against St. Louis in New York City. “A lot of slashing teams can’t shoot the ball from the outside. And this is a slashing team who has multiple 3-point shooters, so that’s going to spread our defense out.”

Virginia Tech went 22-11 last year and made the NCAA Tournament field for the first time in a decade. It’s a significant challenge for a Hawkeye team that struggled to compete in road games early last season. Iowa dropped its first five, four of them by 10 points or more, starting with a Big Ten/ACC Challenge loss at Notre Dame on the last Tuesday of November.

McCaffery said this will be a good lesson for his team, which begins Big Ten Conference play Saturday at home against Penn State.

“It’s not a one-dimensional team by any means,” McCaffery said of Virginia Tech. “And those kind of teams are always hard to play against.”

The Hawkeyes figure to get a boost from the return of junior forward Nicholas Baer. He missed Iowa’s first six games with a broken finger, but practiced Sunday and is expected to be medically cleared Tuesday, McCaffery said. Junior forward Ahmad Wagner also should be back after missing Wednesday’s game with a bruised shoulder.

Both of those veterans will be called on to try to stop Virginia Tech’s potent wing players, led by 6-5 senior Justin Bibbs, who averages 21.3 points per game.

McCaffery said he will decide Tuesday morning who starts at the small forward. That had been Wagner, until freshman Jack Nunge replaced him for Wednesday’s game. Baer also could get the call there. All three will be needed to be at their best.

As will Cook, Iowa’s biggest potential mismatch.

Connor McCaffery has a setback

The health news was less positive when it came to Fran McCaffery’s son, Connor. The freshman point guard hasn’t played yet this season after an ankle injury and then a mononucleosis diagnosis.

Iowa's Connor McCaffery during media day at Carver Hawkeye Arena Monday, Oct. 16, 2017.

Connor McCaffery didn’t travel to the Cayman Islands last week, and it turned out to be a good thing. He took a turn for the worse and had to spend two days in the hospital. He won’t travel to Blacksburg either.

“He’s lost a bunch of weight. He’s really behind physically,” Fran McCaffery said of Connor.

McCaffery said his son could be medically cleared at the end of this week, and then it’s just a matter of how long it takes him to get back into playing shape.

“The plan is for him to play (this year),” McCaffery said of talk of a possible redshirt for Connor. “We’ll see how long this period takes. It might take a week. It might take two or three. If it takes two or three, then you re-evaluate at that time.”