By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa men’s basketball team will add a huge piece to its rotation just in time to face a huge challenge in the Big Ten opener, both figuratively and literally.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Tuesday on a teleconference that 6-foot-9, 253-pound freshman forward Tyler Cook was “good to go” against Purdue in the Big Ten opener on Wednesday in West Lafayette Ind.
Cook has missed the last seven games because of a broken finger on his right shooting had. The former 4-star recruit from St. Louis was averaging 13.7 points per game when he was injured in late November.
Cook’s biggest challenge against Purdue, according to McCaffery, will be on defense where he will be matched against two of the Big Ten’s premier big men in 7-2, 282-pound center Isaac Haas and 6-9, 250-pound power forward Caleb Swanigan.
“I think it’s been that way since he got here,” McCaffery said of defense being Cook's biggest challenge. “Offensively, he’s got everything figured out for the most part. Obviously, he’s going to keep getting better, and he sometimes goes too fast because he’s so quick with a big, strong body. He goes too fast and has had a few uncharacteristic turnovers.
“But defensively is where he’s got to make the progress because we need him on the floor and we don’t want him to get in foul trouble and that’s what happens. All he’s got to do is really anticipate what’s happening as opposed to reacting to what’s happening. In high school, you can just wait and block a shot. In college, the guys are too big, strong and too good, so you have to anticipate where you have to get your body first. And that’s what he is really working on.”
Cook rejoins a team that has played well in his absence, winning its last five games in a row to improve to 8-5 overall.
Adding him back to the mix is a delicate process.
“It is difficult because we had a unit that’s playing well, and the thing about Tyler is whether he starts or whether he doesn’t start, he’s going to play essentially starters minutes,” McCaffery said. “I’m going to have him out there. So, we’ll just work it out the best we can.”
Purdue enters Big Ten play with an 11-2 record, its two losses coming against top-ranked and defending national champion Villanova by three points and at Louisville by seven points.
Swanigan leads four Purdue players who average in double figures in scoring with an 18.3 per-game average. He also leads the Big Ten in rebounding at 12.5 per game.
Cook and Swanigan have faced each other numerous times on the EYBL circuit, so they both should be familiar with each other’s game to an extent.
“What I’ve been impressed with Swanigan is he’s taking intelligent jump shiots,” McCaffery said. “Last year, he took a lot of shots. This year, I haven’t seen him take a bad shot. He took bad shots last year because he was being aggressive because that’s who he is.
“But this year his efficiency with his shot selection, with his movement, with what he’s doing is the reason his numbers are what they are why they’re winning the way they are.”
Iowa swept the series against Purdue last season, winning 70-63 at Mackey Arena in the second Big Ten game.
However, senior guard Peter Jok is the only starter back from that team.
The 6-6 Jok, who leads the Big Ten in scoring, likely will have at least three freshmen in the starting lineup with him on Wednesday, including point guard Jordan Bohannon.
McCaffery was asked Tuesday if he expects Purdue and other Big Ten teams to try to exploit Iowa’s inexperience at point guard where Mike Gesell had started for most of the past four seasons.
Sophomore Christian Williams also plays point guard for the Hawkeyes.
“The thing about Purdue is they’re going to come after your point guard no matter who he is,” McCaffery said. “So we’ll deal with that the first game. After that, that’s a possibility.
“But those two guys have performed well so far. It’s not like you look and say, ‘okay, we’re just going to trap them all over because they’re turnover guys. They’re not big mistake guys and they’re both really good players.
“So it’ll be interesting to see. I don’t see anybody completely changing what they do. If we play a pressing team, they’re going to press. If we play a half-court man team, I think they’ll stay half-court man.”