IOWA CITY — Tyler Cook was smiling during player introductions Friday night.
It wasn’t that he gets more of a kick out of pregame pyrotechnics at Carver-Hawkeye Arena than most people. No, the Iowa basketball junior forward brings his own fire. He just likes playing against good teams and fellow good big men. He proceeded to play like a happy warrior.
While the Hawkeyes’ 72-66 loss to Wisconsin didn’t sit well with anyone on Iowa’s side, Cook didn’t seem crushed by it afterward. It wasn’t that the Hawkeyes stunk or had a defensive malaise. They didn’t shoot well, and a few plays got away from them down the stretch against a good opponent.
Cook was tasked with the challenge of competing against Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, already a three-time Big Ten Player of the Week this season. Cook’s energy and effort was high, while Happ was contained for much of the game.
“I was looking forward to this matchup with Ethan and this team,” Cook said. “I’ve been struggling in the past few games. I was working pretty hard this week and got my mind right to be prepared for this team.
“Personally, I had a decent game. But that doesn’t get the win, so next time I’ll try to do a little bit more.”
When Cook took his NBA early-entry candidacy to the last day back in the spring before withdrawing to return to Iowa, I wondered how enthused he really would be about spending another season here. If he wanted to go pro that much at that time, did it mean he didn’t want to be here any longer?
But what we’ve seen is a player whose aggressiveness on the court and mentality on and off seem to be everything you’d want.
“He’s much more under control,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said.
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“He used to just use his athletic power and beat you in the post and dunk the ball. He’s figured out how to do it off the dribble, how to do it coast to coast, how to recognize, ‘OK, I thought there was space and there was no space, move it. Don’t just ... spin in traffic and knock three guys over.’ His decision-making is really good now.”
Cook had 19 points, 15 rebounds and a team-high four assists Friday. But two other statistics may have been more telling.
First, he played 37 minutes. That’s a lot for a 6-foot-9, 250-pounder. He’ll have to play a lot of minutes this season. Frontcourt players Jack Nunge and Cordell Pemsl are redshirting.
“I told (McCaffery) ‘If I need a break I’ll let you know,’ and he lets me rock,” Cook said. “As long as I stay out of foul trouble, I anticipate to keep playing those minutes.”
Second, Cook drew 11 fouls Friday after drawing a dozen against Pittsburgh Tuesday night. Of the 39 fouls Iowa’s foes committed in those two games, over half were against one player.
“That’s news to me, honestly,” Cook said, amused that anyone even kept track of such a thing. “I’m just trying to go hoop.
“I wish I could shoot free throws every time there’s a foul. I guess I’ll keep being aggressive.”
Unlike Cook, sophomore power forward Luka Garza sounded down after the game. Until the subject was Cook, that is.
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“Down low, they couldn’t stop him,” Garza said. “He’s like that every night.
“We’ve got a long season to go and teams are going to keep having problems with him.”
The prospect of picking themselves off the hardwood and going to mighty Michigan State Monday is daunting. It seems, realistically, like the easiest way to start Big Ten play with an 0-2 record after dashing to the top 15 of the national rankings. Cook, however, said he relishes the opportunity.
“I love it,” he said. “The sooner you play the best teams, the better. I love playing Big Ten games.”
Defensively, he said, “We’ve made huge strides from last year, but that can’t be our mindset anymore. If we just think ‘OK, we’re better than last year,’ that’s still not good enough for this year.”
Cook insisted Friday’s loss wouldn’t consume the Hawkeyes.
“A great team coming in here, they made plays and they deserved it,” he said. “You just want to come out and play hard every night. Most of time, you’ll live with the results.”
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