Putting oversized expectations on college athletes isn’t the kindest thing to do, so I’ll couch things by saying this:
It wouldn’t be the biggest surprise of all-time if Iowa freshman power forward Tyler Cook becomes a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate in future seasons.
Many players are to credit for Hawkeye basketball’s best week of the season, which was last week when it beat Indiana in overtime at home and then decisively handled Maryland on the Eastern Seaboard. Peter Jok, Nicholas Baer, Jordan Bohannon, Christian Williams … take a bow.
Put me at the head of the line of people who thought the Hawkeyes had hit the wall with their Feb. 18 home loss to Illinois that left them 6-8 in the Big Ten. A young team, a long season, a string to be played out.
Someone forgot to tell the players. A week later, they were 8-8 and had built a lot of goodwill with their fans for the way they bounced back from a 17-4 hole against Indiana to persevere and win, then earn a road triumph over the nationally ranked Terrapins.
Cook’s role in the team’s emergence was obvious. After playing no more than 24 minutes in Iowa’s previous eight games, he played 31 against Indiana and 34 against Maryland. His 21 points and career-high-tying 10 rebounds against the Terps easily was his best statistical Big Ten game. He is living up to the recruiting ranking he brought with him to Iowa City, playing with authority in the post and giving defenders headaches.
The fact Cook has shot 19 free throws over those last two games says a lot in itself. So does the fact he has made 70.4 percent of his foul shots in his last three games after averaging 59.5 percent for the season before that. The more he plays, the better he plays. That’s not typical of every player, but it is common among the best players.
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It’s easy to wonder where Cook’s game would be had he not broken his right index finger in late November and missed seven games. But maybe he doesn’t have quite the wear-and-tear to the rest of his body that other players have today, so that’s a possible fraction of a trade-off.
Cook clearly has a thirst to play well, and you can’t really coach that. It’s one reason his team is much more interesting than most 16-13 teams would be at the end of February.
An NIT berth seemed hard for the Hawkeyes to attain after that Illinois defeat, but now it’s well within reach. This is one of those rare seasons when a spot in that tourney would be welcomed instead of taken with resignation.
If you’re Iowa, you want to keep playing beyond the Big Ten tournament. You want to get some sort of taste of postseason play for Cook and the rest of your freshmen to add to their collection of experiences this season.
As for living in the moment, if you ranked the Big Ten’s teams as to how they’re playing right now, Iowa would be well above the eighth-place it holds in the league’s actual standings.
In fact, it would almost be an upside-down cake. Minnesota would have to be first with its seven-game win streak. Illinois has risen from the dead to win its last three games, two of them on the road. Michigan State has awakened from a season of uncharacteristic mediocrity to take four of its last five, including a 10-point win over Wisconsin Sunday.
There’s no dismissing Purdue, mind you. Its 82-70 loss at Michigan Saturday was its first scratch in its last seven games.
But Iowa would be in that top five for the moment, with the understanding that playing at wounded Wisconsin (four losses in its last five games) Thursday isn’t necessarily the best way to keep a good run going.
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Cook will square off with Badgers sophomore Ethan Happ, who averages 14.1 points, 9 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. It will be their first confrontation, with presumably more to come.
First-team All-Big Ten shoo-ins, in my opinion, are Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan, Melo Trimble of Maryland, and Jok. My other two picks would be Happ and Minnesota guard Nate Mason. Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh and Nebraska’s Tai Webster are hard to omit, but it’s a 14-team league and their clubs have faltered down the stretch.
If Jok is one of the five, that will mark four straight years the Hawkeyes have had a first-teamer (Devyn Marble, Aaron White, Jarrod Uthoff) after not having any from 2008 through 2013. Would you bet against Cook making it five straight years next season?