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Iowa junior forward Tyler Cook wore No. 5 his first two seasons; his reason for changing was symbolic. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — The night before the deadline to decide whether to stay in college or go pro, Tyler Cook went to sleep in his hometown of St. Louis still not knowing what he would do.

The 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward prayed about it. He considered the NBA opportunity his mother said he had. And, just hours before the deadline, the decision finally became clear.

He was going to remain a Hawkeye.

“It was a relief,” he said Monday at Iowa basketball’s media day, “once I decided to come back.”

Still, the decision caught teammates off guard — underscoring just how close he came to leaving.

“It was surprising,” forward and junior classmate Cordell Pemsl said. “I knew that he felt like he was ready. He looked great to me. But I’m excited to have him back.”

A huge weight was lifted from Cook’s broad shoulders. Yet at the same time, he’s got more riding on them than ever before.

Cook not only is determined to show he belongs in the NBA … he seems determined to change the course of Hawkeye basketball.

The Hawkeyes are coming off a 14-19 season, one in which they tied for 11th in the Big Ten Conference with a 4-14 record.

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"We have unfinished business here in Iowa City, and I want to help the program turn the corner," Cook wrote in a recent article published for a faith-based website for athletes. "I want to be here when we change the way people view Iowa basketball."

Cook said Monday he's "always been happy here, despite the struggles we've had the last couple years." But he felt led back to Iowa City to experience personal growth as much as proving he can be an NBA first-round draft pick.

“I’m not necessarily focused on what I need to do to get (to the NBA)," Cook said. "I’m just focused on what I need to do for us to win games. (To) do whatever we can do to make sure what happened last year doesn’t happen this year."

Change is afoot.

Cook changed his jersey from No. 5 to No. 25 — a symbolic measure. He explained that the No. 5 is associated with God’s grace; and 5 times 5 is 25 — or “grace multiplied.”

Teammates and Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Cook's leadership has taken a big jump forward. That was one of the main things last year’s team lacked when things began to unravel — a veteran voice to rally the troops.

The other thing missing? Cook knows it. Everybody knows it.

Defense.

That was probably the most prevalent theme of Iowa’s media day Monday, starting with McCaffery. On media day, when it’s easy to say all the right things, this team sounded motivated to be better on the defensive side of the ball than last year, when Iowa’s adjusted defense ranked 242nd nationally — worse than any Power Six school except Washington State.

And that comes back to Cook.

There’s no doubt Cook has the athleticism and size to be a stellar defensive player.

“For a big guy ... he can move his feet and guard a point guard, a small forward or a power forward,” McCaffery said. “(He needs to) really stay engaged, defensively, and be more of a shot-blocker, and we've seen that a little bit so far in practice.”

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After a 14-19 season, Iowa men's basketball coach Fran McCaffery said it's time for the program to focus on defense. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central

In the three years prior to Cook’s arrival, Iowa went to three straight NCAA Tournaments.

Since, Iowa is 0-for-2.

There’s a sense that time is running out. Cook won’t say it, but if he has the kind of year he is capable of having — it will be his last in Iowa City.

“If this is TC’s last year,” teammate Ryan Kriener said, “we want to do it for him.”

Cook is one of the most impressive athletes to come through the Iowa basketball program in decades. He is the type of player who could carry the Hawkeyes to where they all want to go.

Pressure?

“No, I don’t feel pressure at all. The game’s fun to me,” Cook said. “I do what I love to do every day, with guys I love to do it with.

“The way I’ve approached coming back, it’s my job now. I’m just not getting paid for it.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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