Leistikow's Final Thoughts: On Tyler Cook's best decision, Nicholas Baer being 'a legend'

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ten months ago, just hours before the deadline to decide whether he would enter the NBA Draft, Tyler Cook opted to stay in school.

Sunday, as he fought back tears following Iowa’s 83-77 overtime loss to fifth-ranked Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Cook called it “the best decision of my life.”

He encountered highs and lows throughout his junior year with the Hawkeyes.

Fitting, for what transpired in Sunday’s game.

Cook struggled in the first 20 minutes, missing all five shots he attempted. After the halftime break, he was unstoppable.

Tyler Cook reacts as Iowa rallies in the second half against Tennessee.

Cook accounted for Iowa’s first 16 points in the second half — 11 points, plus assists on a Joe Wieskamp 3-pointer and Nicholas Baer lay-in. A 49-28 halftime deficit was trimmed to 53-44, all on Cook’s shoulders.

Cook — and the Hawkeyes — were back.

“In the first half, I wasn’t being the Tyler Cook that my team needed,” he said, his eyes red from emotion. “I knew that if I was going to struggle, I was going to at least play my ass off. I came out and tried to do that, honestly.

“I still feel like I needed to make more plays later in the second half. I failed to do so, and that hurts me as a competitor and as a member of this team.”

In coming back to school, Cook wound up being named second-team all-Big Ten Conference after leading Iowa in scoring and rebounding. Perhaps more importantly, he said coming back helped him become a better teammate, a better person.

► More:Iowa stages furious rally but falls 83-77 in overtime to Tennessee

What’s next for the Hawkeye who, with 1,315 points, is already No. 20 on Iowa’s all-time scoring list?

“I’m emotionally, mentally and physically drained,” Cook said. “I can’t think about that too much right now. I feel like I owe it to these guys to celebrate what we accomplished.”

We know Nicholas Baer’s days are done as a Hawkeye.

And he will be sorely missed. His teammates were emotional, talking about how they will miss the lone senior on this Iowa team that finished 23-12.

The head coach will miss him greatly, too.

“I told him, 'I’ve been doing this for over 30 years,'” Fran McCaffery said. “'I’ve never been around anyone like you.' I’m going to miss him.”

Baer went from walk-on from Bettendorf to the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year as a sophomore. What I’ll remember most about Baer was how he would play so hard that it was easy to tell when he'd reached physical exhaustion, and you knew: McCaffery’s got to give him a breather.

I’m not sure I’ll ever see another player demonstrate more on-court passion.

In the stat book, he delivered four years of hustle plays that led to 794 points, 578 rebounds, 169 assists, 140 3-pointers, 121 blocked shots and 132 steals.

“He’s a legend,” junior Isaiah Moss said. “He meant everything. He brought it every single day.”

In his final postgame interview, Baer was thankful that McCaffery had given him a chance.

“I’m sad about it. I wish everybody could have this feeling — to love something this much that you’re so upset that it’s coming to an end,” he said. “I love this university, I love these guys, I’ve loved every minute of getting a chance to wear the black and gold. I’ll miss it.”

Speaking of legends … Jordan Bohannon is officially Iowa’s 3-point king.

With three 3-pointers on his way to a team-high 18 points Sunday, Bohannon brought his career total to 264 3s — topping the 262 Jeff Horner set in a four-year career that ended in 2006.

And Bohannon still has one year to go.

Having grown up a Hawkeye fan in Marion, Bohannon said he “idolized” Horner — a fellow Iowan. Bohannon was reluctant to talk about himself after the loss, but acknowledged the record means a lot.

“I can remember him pulling up from the logo when I was a little kid,” Bohannon said, “and I wanted to be like him when I grew up.”

Officiating wasn’t the difference in the game. But it was hard to watch.

Inconsistent would be an appropriate description.

Iowa junior Ryan Kriener has maybe the most valid grievance of the day.

As Kriener drove for a transition dunk in the first half, the left side of his body was slammed by Tennessee’s Grant Williams, who also chopped Kriener's right arm as the ball sailed over the rim.

All arm. No ball.

No call.

Williams was even credited with a block on the play, making the lack of the call that much more laughable.

“I can’t get fined, so I’ll say that was absolutely terrible,” Kriener said. “That should have been two shots.”

I don’t know what the answer is. But officiating, even on basketball's biggest stage, has to be better.

Yes, the Iowa comeback was phenomenal. But what’s with these first halves?

In the Hawkeyes’ three round-of-32 games under McCaffery, here are the halftime scores:

2015: Gonzaga 46, Iowa 29.

2016: Villanova 54, Iowa 29.

2019: Tennessee 49, Iowa 28.

That’s an average 21-point halftime deficit in three losses. In those games, Iowa allowed 57.7 percent shooting in the first halves, including 55.6 percent from 3-point range (20 of 36).

Yeah, it’s on the defense. But the other common thread is that the Hawkeyes have run into powerful No. 2 seeds playing in front of a favorable crowd in the second round all three years.

Moral of the story: Try to earn a better NCAA Tournament seed next year … and avoid those second-round juggernauts.