Leistikow: Reflection time for Tyler Cook, Hawkeye program as painful season ends

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

NEW YORK — Not long after the final seconds expired on their frustrating and disappointing season, a locker room at Madison Square Garden became a place of reflection for Iowa basketball players.

For each one of them, and their coach, the main question after a 77-71 overtime loss to Michigan in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament: What now?

“We thought we’d win more games than we did,” Fran McCaffery said after a 14-19 record was officially affixed to his eighth year as Iowa’s coach — his first losing season since 2010-11. “I think we have to readily admit that.”

Iowa players react on the bench late in Thursday's 77-71 loss to Michigan.

Star sophomore guard Jordan Bohannon, who suffered one final injury — a hip pointer — in an exhausting year, didn't want it to end this way. But he was ready for a break.

“Anytime you have a season like this,” he said after a 3-for-14 shooting night, “you have to reflect a little bit, take a little time.”

There will be changes between now and the 2018-19 season.

The biggest ones will begin inside each player’s heart and mind.

One that could reshape the Hawkeyes' roster is what forward Tyler Cook decides about his future.

The team’s leading scorer and the first Hawkeye sophomore to score 500 points in a season since Chris Kingsbury 23 years ago, Cook was noncommittal about his future in black and gold.

“Only God knows,” he said in response to my asking whether he’ll be back with the Hawkeyes next season.

“I can’t really answer that right now,” Cook continued. “I’m still disappointed about this game. Take some time off. Take care of my body. Take care of my mind. See where we go from there.”

Cook could explore the transfer market. He could test the NBA waters, as underclassmen are allowed to do without an eligibility penalty unless they hire an agent. He also could be back with Iowa as a junior and have an all-Big Ten season.

We don't know yet.

I’d advise fans who are worried about losing the star to do the same thing Cook plans to: Let it play out before making a rash reaction.

“I’ve got some good people in my corner that’ll help me think through things,” he said. “We’ll figure it out at a later date.”

Cook is one of the most talented players of the McCaffery era, one of the most prolific dunkers in Hawkeye history. He put up some big numbers as a sophomore (15.3 points per game, with seven double-doubles).

If he were to leave the team, it would certainly leave a mark.

McCaffery, for what it’s worth, said he didn’t expect to lose any players to transfer in the offseason. Though you also wouldn’t expect him to say, “Yeah, I expect to lose a bunch of guys” and then list them.

There are other Hawkeyes rumored to be considering a change in scenery. I won’t mention them here, because each one I asked said he planned to be back.

Whether zero players leave or 3-4 players depart, McCaffery knows it's on him to right the ship.

And he was steadfast after Thursday's game: This program is not falling apart.

McCaffery, 58, believes the foundation is strong.

“The season did not go as we hoped. No question,” McCaffery said. “The thing for me that I look at is, ‘Are they grinding every day? Are they connected to each other? Are they accepting coaching?’ And I told them after the game, not one time did I feel like they weren’t doing that.”

He continued.

“When you come to practice and those kids are ready to go — they’re there early, and they stay late,” McCaffery said. “They continue to share the ball. There was no selfishness on this team at all. … That’s what gives me reason to be optimistic. That’s what character is.”

Forward Ryan Kriener, who led the Hawkeyes with 14 points in 20 feisty minutes Thursday, told me that McCaffery recently informed the team that the strength and conditioning program would be getting an overhaul.

“We’re really going to hit the weight room hard,” Kriener said. “We’re going to hit skill development hard. We’re going to be a really good team next year.”

Those sound like good ideas. The Hawkeyes need to get more sturdy defensively, which isn’t exactly a military secret (they finished last in the Big Ten in scoring defense). Establishing a clear defensive approach needs to be at the top of the offseason list.

McCaffery bristled at hot-seat talk recently. That's because he’s not on one.

Next year, though, he’ll be put to the test.

And until then, the players will be, too.

The disappointment of unmet expectations is a tough thing for 19- and 20-year-old kids to deal with. Do they run away? Do they charge back into it? Do they start to gradually lose their drive?

Right now, the emotions are too raw.

'“Hurt' is probably the easiest word to use,” guard Maishe Dailey said. “We felt like things should’ve been completely different.”

Bohannon will definitely be back with the Hawkeyes, his dream program. With or without Cook, he’ll be looked at as a leader in 2018-19.

He acknowledged that in any basketball offseason, “you can make the assumption that some people are leaving. Not to any of our knowledge, though. We’re in it for the long run. We’re going to keep fighting for each other. We know this team is capable of doing a lot.”

I'll close with something sophomore forward Cordell Pemsl told me afterward. It was good advice for everyone associated with Hawkeye basketball: fans, coaches and players — including Tyler Cook.

“It’s a good time for us for everyone to unwind and forget about everything that happened," he said, "and just try to move forward.”

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.