IOWA CITY, Iowa — Tyler Cook missed games before. Taking a seat at the end of the bench wasn’t fun, but at least he was in the arena.
He didn’t realize how much the last part mattered until Iowa played at Notre Dame in November. Just off of finger surgery, Cook didn’t leave his room. He watched the Hawkeyes on television, the loneliness and helplessness almost too much to bear.
“It’s kind of surreal,” Cook said. “I don’t know if it was just emotions or I was on too many pain pills or what. It was weird because I had never been in that position before.”
This, his freshman year, was a season of firsts. He’d never experienced anything like it on the court.
Before he could put his game back together and average 11.3 points over his last six contests he first needed to learn to navigate this new world where adversity seemed to reign.
“The fact I had to go through it made me stronger mentally,” Cook said. “It helped me figure out things aren’t always going to be easy and won’t go my way.”
A near-perfect Iowa start
Things tended to come easily to Cook. ESPN rated him as a top-40 player. His combination of size, speed, strength and skill gave him an advantage over nearly any other player.
Most high school players will struggle to stop a 6-foot-9, 253-pound freak of nature capable of hitting a shot on the perimeter or in the paint.
Early on, college players struggled with the same things. He was a matchup nightmare while dropping 24 points on Seton Hall on Nov. 17.
“I was probably playing my best basketball,” Cook said.
Cook would fracture his right index finger in practice at the Emerald Classic over Thanksgiving weekend in Florida. He would undergo surgery on Nov. 29, the same day the Hawkeyes faced the Fighting Irish.
He would miss the final seven nonconference games and, at first, there was nothing for him to do but sit. He couldn’t fire up shots, not with a broken digit on his shooting hand.
“When he came back, and anyone that comes back, it’s going to take a while to get back,” forward Cordell Pemsl said.
Figuring out the Big Ten
Cook scored 12 points in his return against Purdue on Dec. 28, but he wasn’t the same. The Cook from November would attack. Now, there was a delay. He would think too much, as if assessing all of his options, before making a move. He wouldn’t always make the proper defensive rotations.
It didn’t help that the Big Ten is full of power forwards equipped not only with similar size, but also with a scouting report on Cook’s tendencies.
Teams would throw double teams at a player taking too long to make a decision. Maryland and Illinois limited him to 13 points on 3-of-12 shooting in back-to-back January losses.
“It took a while,” coach Fran McCaffery said, “because as you progress through the league, teams are studying you and studying your team, and he’s never been scouted like that before.”
Cook needed to adjust and he knew his problem wasn’t physical.
“It’s just more of a mental game than it was back in high school,” Cook said.
It can be tough to stay locked in for 40 minutes, especially if tasked with a tough defensive assignment.
But there was no other option. He needed to focus on being aggressive.
“It was about making sure I’m always in attack mode,” Cook said, “making sure that my mental state is right for every game and throughout the game.”
Attack mode come to life
If he thought about being active he would be. Cook would attack the basket. He would crash the glass. He would be in the right spot defensively.
The more he moved the more consistent his game became. He’s scored double-digit points in five of the last six games.
Cook is no longer thinking. He’s just playing.
“Now, he’s more confident in his finger,” Pemsl said. “At first, I think he was worried. If I hit this what is going to happen? Now, he is a lot more relaxed.”
Iowa’s bye came at a perfect time. It allowed Cook to work on his game. He fine-tuned his offensive game, working on post position finishing and his midrange jumper.
It showed against Illinois on Saturday. The Hawkeyes lost, 70-66, but Cook was the team’s most consistent offensive option. He scored 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting in 24 minutes. Most of his points came around the basket, where he’s becoming his most effective.
“We want Tyler Cook with the ball 3 feet from the basket, and any time we can do that it’s going to be helpful for our team,” forward Nicholas Baer said.
Cook doesn’t want anything to disrupt his rhythm. But if this season taught him anything, he knows adversity is always lurking.
He’s not seeking it out, but he’s not going to shy away from it either. Now, he’s in a position to ensure it doesn’t throw off his game.
“I want to be a problem anywhere I am on the court,” Cook said.