IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery is all aboard the Tyler Cook train.
So are Cook’s teammates. That’s from his freshmen classmates and the Hawkeyes’ one true returning star, senior guard Peter Jok.
Privately and publicly, Iowa players, coaches and observers rave about Cook, a 6-foot-9, 253-pound power forward with a small forward skill set. A Rivals’ 4-star recruit, Cook is versatile enough to bring up the ball in transition and finish it with a dunk. Or drill a 3-pointer.
There’s no tamping down Cook’s expectations. In fact, McCaffery ramped them up.
“I think he’s capable of being a star. I really do,” McCaffery said. “You guys that have been around me know that I say what I think typically, so it’s not like let’s go easy and not push him. I have a responsibility to be honest, and I think he’s an impact player, certainly on our team, in our league, and on a national level. I think he’s that good.”
Whoa, there’s no easing Cook into the rough-and-rumble Big Ten. It’s not McCaffery’s style to undersell his players, but he’s had some good ones the last few years. All-Big Ten first-team selections Devyn Marble and Aaron White were NBA draft picks. Forward Jarrod Uthoff was a second-team All-American forward last year. Jok was a second-team all-Big Ten performer who nearly entered the NBA draft last May.
They all rank among the upper echelon in school history. But Cook is special, and McCaffery is building his offense around him.
“He probably has the highest ceiling,” McCaffery said
Cook already has a powerful Big Ten body. Jok compared Cook to former Michigan State rebounding extraordinaire Branden Dawson, except Cook is “more skilled than Branden.”
Jok’s not prone to hyperbole. He and Uthoff elevated the Hawkeyes to a No. 3 national ranking last year before dropping six of their final eight games. Jok has played with and against some of the league’s best over his previous three years. If he didn’t think Cook was worthy of a comparison, Jok wouldn’t say it.
Instead, like McCaffery, he played up Cook’s potential.
“Once he gets consistent with his shot, he’s going to be dangerous,” Jok said. “I don’t think anybody in the Big Ten or the country has a big that can guard him. You really can’t put a guard on him because he’s bigger than them. He’s going to create a lot of mismatches this year. “
So how did Iowa land Cook instead of one of the traditional basketball elites? Well, Cook played AAU and high school basketball alongside Gatorade Male Athlete of the Year Jayson Tatum. They took St. Louis Chaminade to the Missouri Class 5 title and built the St. Louis Eagles into a national AAU powerhouse.
Tatum signed with Duke. Part of Cook’s value was in how he complemented Tatum, which he did at Chaminade with 13 points and seven rebounds a game. But McCaffery saw something special in Cook as a sophomore at an AAU camp and then began a relationship.
It’s a four-hour drive from Iowa City to St. Louis, and both McCaffery and assistant coach Sherman Dillard made that trek several times over three years. They attended every one of Cook’s AAU tournaments. Cook and his family also drove north a handful of times. On his 18th birthday last year with McCaffery and Dillard in attendance, Cook blew out the candles on a Tiger-Hawk cake and committed to Iowa.
McCaffery is just as committed to Cook. The Hawkeyes, which lost 392 starts with the graduation of four long-time starters, plan a fast-break transition attack with Cook a primary piece. His incoming teammates naturally defer to Cook on the floor because they’ve seen his athletic ability.
“His explosiveness is unreal,” said freshman forward Cordell Pemsl, one of Iowa’s best high school players at Dubuque Wahlert last year. “The kid can dunk from anywhere in the paint, honestly. Whether there’s a defender in there or not, his mentality is I’m going to dunk on you. That’s something that Iowa basketball really hasn’t had in a long time. He’s going to be a lot of fun to watch this year and I’m very honored to be his teammate.”
“He just adds a whole different dimension to our team, just having a guy like him on the court,” said freshman point guard Jordan Bohannon, whose three older brothers played Division I basketball at Wisconsin (two) and Northern Iowa (one). “We just throw it up to him whenever he wants and we know he’s going to get it.”
The hype has just begun for Cook. He comes across as mature and likable. He credits his parents, Trent and Stephanie Cook, for providing confidence and instilling a work ethic. He recalled a conversation with his father this summer when describing the impact he can have at Iowa.
“My dad said, ‘You’re a freshman, you’re not a rookie,'” Cook said. “That kind of stuck with me.
“I was highly recruited for a reason. I can do a lot of things on the court.”
Cook’s demeanor was matter-of-fact, not arrogant. If he can deliver in the same fashion, Cook has a chance to become an impact player immediately … and beyond.