What we learned about Iowa and the Big Ten heading into league play

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Iowa is getting a big-time player back just in time for Big Ten Conference play.

But in order for Tyler Cook’s return to the Hawkeye lineup to be a triumphant one, he’ll need to blend in on defense while continuing to display his superb offensive skills. That is no small task for the freshman power forward.

The Hawkeyes (8-5) are on a five-game winning streak fueled almost entirely by a determination to get defensive stops. Cook, who missed seven games with a broken finger, watched that transformation but wasn’t able to participate in it.

Iowa freshman Tyler Cook (5) can score, but it's how he handles the defensive end when he returns from injury Wednesday that will determine how far the Hawkeyes can go in Big Ten play.

“It’s difficult because we had a unit that’s playing well,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Tuesday when asked about reintegrating Cook for Wednesday’s 7:30 p.m. game at No. 15 Purdue (11-2), to be broadcast on the Big Ten Network. “We’ll just work it out the best we can.”

McCaffery said Cook — who averaged 13.7 points and 5.3 rebounds before being replaced in the starting lineup by classmate Cordell Pemsl — will play “starter’s minutes” whether or not he actually starts today’s Big Ten opener. He averaged 31 minutes of playing time in his three games against quality opposition (Seton Hall, Virginia and Memphis).

So the first question for Iowa is whose minutes will Cook take? It probably will be some combination of Ahmad Wagner, Dom Uhl and Brady Ellingson, who combined for 27 points in 60 minutes in Iowa’s last game, an 89-57 demolition of Delaware State on Thursday.

What else have we learned, about Iowa and the Big Ten, as league play begins?

Lesson No. 1: Hawkeyes need to defend to win

Iowa got off to a 3-5 start this season with a shoot-first, guard-later mindset. The Hawkeyes can score. That was never the question. But they were surrendering 85.6 points per game and bottomed out in an embarrassing 98-89 home loss to Nebraska-Omaha on Dec. 3.

They haven’t given up more than 73 points since. Opponents are shooting mere 32.8 percent from the field in the past five games.

What changed?

“What feels different is our camaraderie on the court. I think we’re playing a lot better as a team and that’s showing on the defensive end,” said Wagner, a sophomore forward.

Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas have a laugh on the bench late against Western Illinois on Dec. 19. Iowa opens Big Ten play against Purdue this week.

Wagner is likely to get the first crack at trying to contain Purdue star Caleb Swanigan, a double-double metronome averaging 18.3 points and 12.5 rebounds. He has reached double digits in both categories 10 times in 13 games to lead the nation. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound sophomore has doubled up on Big Ten player of the week honors, too, earning it in back-to-back weeks now.

The Boilermakers are more than just Swanigan, however. Three other players average double-figure scoring and the unselfish team is third in the nation at 20.1 assists per game while shooting 41.3 percent from the 3-point arc.

So we’re about to find out if Iowa’s defensive resurgence can hold up to a withering road assignment. Cook needs to do his part, if not on Swanigan then on 7-2 center Isaac Haas or 6-8 stretch forward Vincent Edwards.

“Defensively is where he’s got to make the most progress. We need him on the floor. We don’t want him getting in foul trouble,” McCaffery said of Cook. “You have to anticipate where to get your body first. And that’s what he’s really working on.”

Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery questions Isaiah Moss as he heads to the bench during the Hawkeyes' game against Delaware State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016.

Lesson No. 2: Youth has served itself

Iowa’s six first-year players are averaging 45 points per game, with two of them — Jordan Bohannon and Isaiah Moss — joining Pemsl in the starting lineup lately. It was understood entering the season that the Hawkeyes would have to rely on some rookies, notably Cook and Bohannon. But Pemsl and Moss have been true eye-openers.

It hasn’t always been pretty, but McCaffery is heartened by the work ethic of his youngsters.

“These guys have been consistent with their effort, their concentration,” McCaffery said. “These guys are tough, they’re smart, they’ve figured it out. Now it’s going to be tougher. These next 18 games, there’s no let up at all. You’re going to see a star at every position every game we play.”

Bohannon in particular figures to face a rocky road. A slight 6-foot point guard, he’s overtaken sophomore Christian Williams for the starting spot and has played 30 minutes or more in five of the last seven games. Big Ten teams will waste no opportunity to come after him.

McCaffery doesn’t think opposing teams will revamp their game plan in order to challenge Bohannon, but is curious to see for himself how the Linn-Mar product fares. Working in Bohannon’s favor is a stat line of 61 assists against 32 turnovers. He hasn’t been mistake-prone. Yet.

It’s also worth noting that the young Hawkeyes haven’t found themselves in a tight game so far. All eight victories have been by 11 or more points. Only two losses have been by less — eight-point decisions against Seton Hall and Memphis.

What happens when Iowa needs to protect a narrow lead late in a game will be a clearer indication of the maturity of McCaffery’s first-year players.

Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino, left, argues about a call against Arkansas State on Dec. 23 in Minneapolis.

Lesson No. 3: Parity has arrived

The Big Ten has always had a few elite squads challenging for a national title. This year, no Big Ten team is ranked among the top 10, although there are three in the current top 25. Two other teams are receiving votes in the latest coaches’ poll.

But if the ceiling may not be as high as it typically is, it’s also evident that the floor has been raised in the Big Ten. Want proof? Minnesota was a putrid 2-16 in Big Ten play last year, but enters the conference season with a gaudy 12-1 record this winter. The once-lowly Gophers were six-point favorites against Michigan State in their Tuesday league opener.

Northwestern enters Big Ten play on an eight-game winning streak. Illinois has won six in a row.

Indeed, it is Iowa that finds itself with the lowest RPI among Big Ten teams as the conference season dawns. The Hawkeyes are at 168; Nebraska is next-lowest at 102. Those teams meet twice — in Lincoln on Jan. 5 and in Iowa City one month later. Iowa also gets Rutgers (current RPI: 80) in a home-and-home. So the Hawkeyes will have plenty of chances to prove they’re not the Big Ten’s worst.

“The Big Ten’s definitely a different monster. We know we’re going to play tougher teams and prepare even harder,” Wagner said. “But we’re all ready for the challenge.”

Iowa's Peter Jok shoots a 3-pointer during the Hawkeyes' game against Delaware State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016.

Lesson No. 4: Jok in rare air

Iowa’s fate ultimately is in the hands of Peter Jok more than anyone else. The senior guard is the unquestioned star and leader of a young pack. He’s relishing both roles so far.

Jok is averaging 22.6 points per game to rank eighth nationally and first — by a wide margin — among Big Ten scorers. Next is Indiana’s James Blackmon Jr. at 18.5 points.

Jok is aiming to have the best scoring season by a Hawkeye in Big Ten play since Andre Woolridge averaged 20.2 points in 1996-97. What’s even more remarkable about Jok’s scoring is that he’s playing only 29 minutes per game, a number that figures to rise significantly in the conference season.

He’s also leading the team with 6.2 rebounds per game.

So this could be a very special season for Jok, Iowa’s lone senior. The question that will start to be answered Wednesday is whether the kids will do their part to make it just as special for themselves.