Tyler Cook returns to Iowa Hawkeyes for junior basketball season

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

Tyler Cook is returning to the black-and-gold fold.

Iowa’s star post player is delaying a shot at a pro career to play his junior season at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where his dunking prowess has made him a fan favorite.

Cook, at 6-foot-9, 255 pounds, led the Hawkeyes last season with 15.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, while shooting a team-high 56.6 percent from the field.

Iowa's Tyler Cook celebrates a dunk during the Hawkeyes' game against Seton Hall at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016.

He was the leader of a team that finished a discouraging 14-19, the worst Iowa mark in seven seasons.

Cook announced shortly after Iowa’s season ended March 1 that he would test the NBA Draft process without hiring an agent, which allowed him to return for his junior season as long as he announced his intention by late Wednesday night. He made that deadline.

Cook worked out for a handful of NBA teams but it was deemed unlikely that he would be selected during the NBA Draft on June 21. He also would have had opportunities to play in the NBA G League or overseas, but opted to work on his skills for at least one more season at the college level.

Paul Biancardi, the national director of recruiting for ESPN, thinks Cook made the correct decision.

"If he wants to be an NBA player, I think he's got to dominate the glass more and become a better face-up shooter," said Biancardi, who has been watching Cook since his days at Chaminade Prep School in St. Louis. "But on the flip side, if you're going to expand your shooting, then you'd better expand your defense away from the basket, too. Show that you can cover the 3-point line. Show that you can really navigate your footwork away from the basket."

Cook gives Iowa a needed physicality. His return sets up a likely starting lineup of sophomore center Luka Garza, Cook at power forward, highly regarded incoming freshman Joe Wieskamp at small forward, junior Isaiah Moss at shooting guard and junior Jordan Bohannon at point guard. Bohannon, Cook and Moss have started together most of the past two seasons as well.

That would mean frontcourt players Cordell Pemsl, Ryan Kriener and Jack Nunge would battle for backup minutes. Each has been effective at times, although consistency has been elusive.

Biancardi says the burden is largely on Cook to help the Hawkeyes get better. He needs to improve his skill set while not forgetting what has made him effective in his first two seasons.

"He's got to play to his strengths every game to make Iowa win. He dominates in the low post and then in the middle of the paint, inside the foul line," Biancardi said. "He rebounds well, but he's got to bring that to a better level.

"I thought he was a good low-post defender (in high school). I thought he was able to hold his ground. I thought he made it difficult for guys to score over him. But when you go to play in college, then you've got to learn the nuances of the low post. How to get your position before the offense sets up. And when to front the post, when to play behind it, how to battle without fouling. I think he's gotten better in a lot of aspects, but he's got a long way to go for that league (the NBA). He's got a long way to go to be first team all-Big Ten. But he's on that path."

Hawkeye forward Ahmad Wagner left this offseason, transferring to Kentucky to take a shot at playing football. Shooting guard Brady Ellingson transferred to play his final basketball season at Drake. Neither senior was a big factor in the team’s plans, but it does rob the team of two more experienced athletes. Cook’s return helps offset those concerns.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery indicated earlier this spring that he is reluctant to bring in transfers. Cook’s return makes that less necessary as well.

Cook, a native of St. Louis, emerged as an immediate starter at Iowa, averaging 12.3 points and 5.3 rebounds his first year. He, along with Bohannon, was named to the Big Ten Conference’s all-freshman team.

Iowa finished 19-15, just missing a spot in the NCAA Tournament, in 2016-17.

Hopes were high that the Bohannon-Cook nucleus would lift the Hawkeyes back into March Madness in Year 2. But the season was a bust almost from the outset, with the team dropping early back-to-back games against Louisiana and South Dakota State in the Cayman Islands and never finding any traction.

Cook’s return, plus the addition of Wieskamp, should restore some faith among fans that the Hawkeyes can be competitive in the Big Ten. Even so, the team will have to dramatically improve its leaky defense and find a reliable backup point guard option for Bohannon.