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IOWA CITY — Midway through the second half, Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon dribbled out of pressure on the perimeter and tossed up a lob toward the Hawkeyes’ hoop. Waiting was fellow freshman Tyler Cook, who was only prevented from what would’ve been a roof-raising alley-oop by a South Dakota foul.
Cook went to the free throw line and gave Bohannon a fist-bump with a Cheshire grin on his face.
He laughed after the game when talking about how good the Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd was, that an oop like that would’ve put them over the top.
His play over the Hawkeyes’ last five games has been vital to Iowa winning four of them — the last of which Wednesday night in the opening round of the NIT against South Dakota. The St. Louis native came in with much fanfare, and an almost impossible-to-meet level of expectations.
Something has finally clicked, though. The Cook everyone has seen in the last month is the one most everyone expected. His 13.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 65.9 percent shooting in that span says so — with emphasis.
“When he’s playing like that, it opens all our games as well,” Bohannon said Wednesday night. “It’s hard to lose when he’s getting every board and dunking on everyone like he is.”
Cook’s latest performance was one that has exemplified his maturation through experience, Coach Fran McCaffery said. He had 18 points and eight rebounds — four of which came on the offensive glass, and one of which was a tip in to end the half where Cook said, “I promise you I couldn’t see the hoop,” as his head was behind the backboard.
An early-season finger injury had its biggest effect, McCaffery said, defensively. McCaffery said, “consequently, he was in foul trouble. He was a little bit late on rotations, whether we were pressing or whether we were man or zone.”
But with more time and a little perspective, Cook has been a much more all-around player than just one who threw down emphatic dunks and stared down opponents.
His last five rebounding totals? Ten at Maryland, eight at Wisconsin, 10 against Penn State, seven against Indiana and eight against South Dakota. He shot 8 of 8 from the field Wednesday night, and in the last five games, his worst shooting performance was 4 of 8 in the Big Ten Tournament loss to the Hoosiers.
“As he’s had a chance to mature through experience, he’s affecting the game at both ends,” McCaffery said. “You’re also seeing it reflected in his rebounding totals, his rebounding numbers. At the beginning of the year he wasn’t getting eight, ten rebounds like he is now.”
Before the recent surge in overall performance, Cook was trying to put an exclamation point on every play and every game. Not that he bought his own hype, but Cook acknowledged it was “a fair statement to make” that he was trying to live up to it, at least.
Losing as a team and struggles individually have a tendency to snap things back into focus.
From the beginning of the season to now, things are far more in focus for Cook. It’s why he could laugh at missing a chance to make the crowd go crazy with an alley-oop dunk.
“I wasn’t focused on the details of what it takes to be a great player and the little things I’ve got to take care of (earlier in the year). I was kind of focused on making the highlight play, rather than just being solid and letting the highlight plays come,” Cook said. “I think that, along with rebounding, is something I’m doing really well of late — and just calming down and putting myself in the best position to score; finding guys and stuff like that. It’s come a long ways from the beginning of the season.”
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