Iowa's leading man Tyler Cook makes strides during humbling season

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

Tyler Cook leads Iowa in points, rebounds and perspective this Big Ten Conference season.

The sophomore forward spent the summer talking about the need to be the player other Hawkeyes rallied around during a season in which they were expecting to be near the top of the league.

He wasn’t expecting the burden to be this heavy or the losses this numerous.

Iowa forward Tyler Cook (right) celebrates a basket during the team's 85-67 win over Wisconsin on Tuesday. It was just the Hawkeyes' second Big Ten Conference victory of the season, but Cook has been trying to remain upbeat. The sophomore leads the team in points and rebounds in league play.

Iowa reached the halfway mark of Big Ten play with a 2-7 record, ahead of only Illinois, heading into Saturday’s 7 p.m. game at surging Nebraska (15-8, 6-4). That game will be televised on BTN.

The Hawkeyes have been outscored by 67 points in Big Ten games, are just 11-11 overall, and are a longshot for any postseason play.

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“It’s helped me grow as a man more than a basketball player,” Cook said after an 85-67 victory over Wisconsin on Tuesday.

Cook was brilliant in that one, with 17 points and five rebounds before departing midway through the second half with a mild ankle sprain, (He is expected to play Saturday.) The victory gave the amiable 6-foot-9, 255-pound St. Louis native reason to smile. But he also acknowledged the unexpected strain of a season that has included six blowout losses.

“I never questioned myself or the rest of the guys,” Cook said.

“But there’s been times where you get more frustrated than other times. You’ve got to realize when those times are. You’ve got to realize when you’re a little keyed up. But you’ve just got to stay even-keeled.”

Cook is averaging 16.1 points and 7.2 rebounds in Big Ten play. He is shooting 52 percent from the field. It’s been a strong followup campaign for a player who made the conference’s all-freshman team a year ago.

And it hasn’t been enough to make the Hawkeyes competitive. Cook feels the weight of that.

“I’ve grown where I’ve learned how to accept more of the blame myself as a leader and being able to come out and not only make plays myself but for other guys as well,” he said. “I knew coming into the season that guys were going to play me differently and there was going to be games where I’d have big scoring nights and I knew there was going to be games where I wasn’t.

“Staying consistent within my work, with the way I play the game, the way I think the game, has been the biggest jump I’ve made.”

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery has been impressed with the “professional” attitude Cook brings to his sport.

“He wants to be a good teammate. He wants to be verbal in the locker room. He wants to be verbal on the floor. He wants to be a hard worker in practice, in the weight room and set an example,” McCaffery said. “It’s never about him. He’s a very unselfish guy.”

There has been no shortage of big performances from Cook this year — a career-high 29 points vs. Alabama-Birmingham, 13 rebounds at Illinois, five assists at Iowa State. But he’s had to cede the center spot to star freshman Luka Garza, giving the Hawkeyes their best combination, but not necessarily accentuating Cook’s skill set.

There’s the unselfishness McCaffery spoke about.

“There’s no doubt that he is a very useful college basketball player. I think that in a lot of ways Iowa’s roster is probably not conducive to him reaching his ceiling. You could play him at center full-time. I think he’d be really good going up against some of the bigger, lumbering dudes that populate the Big Ten,” said Sam Vecenie, a national basketball writer for The Athletic website. “He’s mostly a ‘4’ for them, and I think it doesn’t do him any favors as a player.”

Cook has NBA aspirations, but Vecenie doesn’t have him ranked among his top 150 prospects. He said Cook needs to develop a 3-point shot (he’s 3-for-14 in his career) and prove that he can be an elite defensive rebounder first. Cook projects as a center at the pro level, but is caught in a tough era where the supply of players his size far exceeds the demand.

“It would help him I think to be able to move his feet a little better in space. He’s a good athlete, certainly. He’s explosive. He’s a good finisher around the basket, for sure,” Vecenie said of Cook, who has 40 dunks this season. “There are a lot of players Tyler Cook’s size who can do those things who can also bring more to the table. Especially in an NBA where guys who are 6-foot-9, 6-foot-10, 250 pounds, they’re becoming marginalized in a lot of ways.”

Cook is focused on reviving the season at hand.

“Trying to be the best I can be now is most important for my guys,” he said.

But he also feels the lessons he’s learned in what has been a humbling season will pay off whenever he departs Iowa for a pro career.

“I feel like mentally I’ll be ready for whatever role, ready to accept it,” Cook said. “I’m a much better shooter, much better ball-handler, much better player overall.

“I obviously have a lot more work to do, but I think I’ll be ready to make that step whenever the time comes.”

His team may have taken a step backward this season. Cook has not.