Iowa forward Tyler Cook has been aggressive about sprinting down court to post up, and he explains why. Mark Emmert/Hawk Central
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tyler Cook scored 21 points with nine rebounds the last time his Iowa basketball team faced Ohio State.
But all the sophomore forward wanted to talk about afterward was the Hawkeyes’ disappointing defensive effort, particularly against Buckeyes forward Keita Bates-Diop.
Iowa (12-14, 3-10 Big Ten Conference) gets one more shot at trying to corral the league’s best player at 5 p.m. Saturday on BTN. The No. 16 Buckeyes (21-5, 12-1) are tied with Purdue atop the Big Ten, using that 92-81 victory in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Jan. 4 as a springboard to a remarkable run.
Bates-Diop, a 6-foot-7 junior, leads the Big Ten in scoring at 20.2 points per game. He punished Iowa for 27, along with 13 rebounds, five weeks ago. Last Saturday, the Hawkeyes traveled to Penn State for a date with guard Tony Carr, who was then leading the league in scoring. He had 16. The Nittany Lions demolished their guests 82-58.
Here they go again?
“Some guys, if you just don’t let them catch it in certain spots, they’re not very effective. It doesn’t matter where he catches it. He’s going to eventually get to where he wants to get to,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery marveled Friday, speaking of Bates-Diop. “He can shoot 3s, he’s got an in-between game, he shoots floaters and can finish with either hand.
“You’ve got to stay close to him and pay attention to him.”
McCaffery was dismayed to see his Hawkeyes occasionally double-team other Buckeyes in their first meeting. Bates-Diop made them pay in a game that was not as competitive as the final score might indicate.
That will not be the plan of attack this time.
McCaffery was so impressed with the front-runner for Big Ten player of the year that he made this bold claim: “Keita Bates-Diop didn’t play last year (missing the final 23 games with a stress fracture in his leg). Had he played, they wouldn’t have won 17 games. They probably would have won 24 games.”
Whether Bates-Diop alone is worth seven wins is debatable. But he’s certainly good enough to help bury Iowa again if the Hawkeyes don’t find a way to contain him or at least get him in foul trouble (he has not fouled out of a game this season).
That brings things back to Cook, who has solidified himself as Iowa’s leader in the weeks since that first run-in with Bates-Diop. Cook, at 6-9, is averaging 20.6 points in his past five games while contending with some of the best big men in the league, if not the country.
That stretch included 17 points against Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ; another 17, with 10 rebounds, against Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy; 19 points against Penn State’s Mike Watkins; and 26 points Tuesday while tangling with Michigan State’s stable of frontcourt stars.
If the Hawkeyes have any shot at pulling off an upset at Value City Arena, where the Buckeyes are 14-2 this season, it rests on Cook holding his own inside yet again. Not alone, and not against just Bates-Diop. He’ll need freshman center Luka Garza and sophomore reserve forward Cordell Pemsl to also pull their weight against Ohio State’s rookie center Kaleb Wesson (10.8 points per game) and senior forward Jae’Sean Tate (12.9).
“Tate is one of the more underrated players nationally. He is phenomenal. He’s a mismatch nightmare,” McCaffery said.
Cook is working his way into that conversation as well. He’s at the top of every opponent’s game plan, right where McCaffery expected him to be when he recruited him out of St. Louis and then proclaimed him the player with the highest ceiling of anyone he’s brought to Iowa City in his eight seasons.
“He’s a thinker. He’s a worker. He knows he’s good. He wants to be great. And he’s making progress to get to that point,” McCaffery said.
McCaffery pointed to one play in the Michigan State game when Cook grabbed a rebound off a missed 3-pointer. He quickly dribbled downcourt while everyone anticipated either one of his ferocious dunks (he has 50 on the year) or one of his curious turnovers (he has 58). Instead, Cook jump-stopped in the lane and found point guard Jordan Bohannon for a 3-pointer to put the Hawkeyes ahead by four points in a game they eventually lost 96-93.
“Those kind of plays are who he is,” McCaffery said of his emerging star.
“He has a really good demeanor to play this game. A combination of competitiveness and intellectual approach.”
Cook is becoming Iowa’s bell cow, and the team desperately needs one. A strong showing for him and the team at Ohio State would cement that status.
McCaffery said he doesn’t worry about asking too much from a second-year player.
“No. 1, does he want it? And No. 2, do I think he can do it? And the answer to that is yes on both counts,” McCaffery said.
“That’s what we need him to do and that’s what he’s doing.”