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The sophomore has upped his game and work ethic after a solid freshman season. Chad Leistikow / The Register

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Tyler Cook seemed to hit an almost unstoppable zone during Iowa’s two-game run in last season’s NIT.

Then a freshman, Cook converted 15 of 15 field-goal attempts — that’s 100 percent shooting, while averaging 17.5 points a game.

Now a sophomore, the 20-year-old product of St. Louis barely recognizes the player he was against South Dakota and TCU at the end of the Hawkeyes’ 19-15 season.

“Seeing the player I am now,” Cook said Monday at Iowa’s annual basketball media day, “I look back and watch film and I’m, like, ‘Damn.’ I really was not that good.”

Saying he wants to be “the best player in the country,” the 6-foot-9, 255-pound power forward who is already one of the most emphatic dunkers to ever wear a Hawkeye uniform has been the offseason talk of his teammates.

And if he’s as good as they say he is, watch out: Cook could take the Big Ten by storm.

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Teammate Jordan Bohannon said, “I could show you film — hours on end — what happened this offseason.”

Added Cordell Pemsl: “I’ve seen everything change” with Cook's game.

What, specifically?

“Whether it’s dribbling in the paint and dunking on three defenders,” Bohannon said, “… it’s just unreal how much better he’s gotten at the rim.

“I didn’t think he could surprise me any more with his strength and how high he can jump, but it’s almost doubled this year. … He’s just been a monster.”

Pemsl said Cook has become a much more potent outside threat. Last year, Cook converted 2-pointers at a 56.5-percent clip while making just 2 of 8 attempts from 3-point range.

And while you wouldn’t want someone with Cook’s dynamic inside ability to hover behind the 3-point line, that apparent added dimension has played a part in changing his game.

Teammate Ryan Kriener said Cook has been posting up — not on the block, but 14 feet from the hoop. That's a much easier entry pass.

If Cook can truly be an inside-outside threat, imagine the tough decision a defender must make: Guard him tightly and risk giving up an embarrassing drive to the basket? Or leave him open for a short jump shot?

“If we get him the ball and he’s got position, we can let him isolate a whole half of the court,” Kriener said. “And he’s going to get a good shot for us every time.”

The evolution of Cook’s game will be on display soon, with Iowa's Nov. 10 season opener against Chicago State just three weeks from Friday.

But there’s no doubt he’s been working his tail off to get to this point.

“I was in the gym every single this day in the offseason,” Cook said.

He said he wasn’t exaggerating — be it a full-fledged workout or getting a few shots up, he was working tirelessly. I’ve heard that from other inside sources, too — nobody’s outworking Cook.

We used to hear that about Aaron White, Iowa’s No. 2 all-time leading scorer and No. 3 rebounder. But White, now playing his third year of pro ball overseas, would be the first to admit he doesn't have the God-given physical tools that Cook has.

And that’s an exciting proposition to think about — a player with White’s legendary work ethic combined with one that has maybe the most talent of anyone in the Fran McCaffery era.

Cook learned he needed to up his game during an up-and-down freshman season. He had a decent start; then a broken finger that kept him out for a key non-conference stretch; then some growing pains before a strong finish.

“The whole experience from Day 1 until the season ended,” Cook said, “it kind of just stuck with me.”

At the Big Ten level, he said, he learned that “everybody’s really good. It’s not like high school, where I could walk into any gym and go for 20, 25, 30 (points) without stretching.”

And if Cook does bust out this year, it's not like it'll have come out of nowhere — he’s one of McCaffery's most prized recruits in eight years here, and he had a very nice rookie campaign, at 12.3 points per game, earning a spot (along with Bohannon) on the Big Ten’s five-player all-freshman team.

He is the most likely candidate to continue an impressive streak under McCaffery.

In the last four seasons, Iowa has had a first-team all-Big Ten player — from Devyn Marble to White to Jarrod Uthoff to Peter Jok.

Cook embraces the idea that he could be the fifth in a row.

“Offensively, I feel like I’m unstoppable,” Cook said. “That, along with Coach has always done a great job putting us in the best positions where we can score the ball offensively … I definitely feel like I can step up and be that guy.”

He knows free-throw shooting will have to improve. He has made adjustments on the stroke that netted just a 59.8-percent success rate. Now, he doesn't let himself transition to a new phase of his workout without canning five straight free throws.

“I just feel dominant from every level," Cook said. "I feel like I can put the ball in the hole from wherever someone asks me to.”

Expectations for this Iowa team should be, at minimum, to make the NCAA Tournament bubble.

If Cook can become the go-to guy that he and his teammates think he can be, that'll be a game-changer. And a season-changer.

“That’s something Tyler and I have talked about, knowing we have the ability to open up each other’s games," said Bohannon, the point guard who broke Iowa's freshman records in 3-pointers and assists last winter. "Whether that’s the pick and roll, whether that’s me driving, whether that’s him driving — the amount of attention we’re going to bring is really going to open everyone else’s game as well.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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