By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Media day for the Iowa men’s basketball team was less than two months ago, but it seems like a distant memory under the current circumstances.
Especially in the case of sophomore forward Tyler Cook.
He has gone from being the main attraction on media day as a superstar in the making to a player mired in a serious slump that sunk to a new low during Thursday’s 84-78 loss at Iowa State.
The 6-foot-9, 255-pound Cook was held to just two points and seemed indecisive and limited on offense. He often held on to the ball for too long after being fed in the post, causing the offense to bog down.
Opponents are now aware of Cook’s reluctance to shoot medium-range jump shots, so they’re clogging his path to the basket with double and triple-teams and giving him space to shoot.
Cook already has established himself as one of the best dunkers to ever wear a Hawkeye uniform. But dunking only goes so far and there are fewer opportunities to rattle the rim when opponents know that’s what you want to do.
In fairness to Cook, he had five assists in the first half and didn’t force the issue against Iowa State on offense. But he also didn’t adjust to what the Cyclones were doing on defense, nor did his coaches seem to adjust.
“I wasn’t necessarily concerned with just scoring the ball,” Cook said. “I should have scored more. But obviously, we’re not going to try and get shots up just to get shots up.
“When I had the ball I didn’t see many open looks for myself.”
The talk on media day was that Cook was poised to take the Big Ten by storm this season. He helped to fuel the hype by saying his goal was to not just be the best player in the Big Ten, but the entire country.
The media took what Cook said and ran with it because it was vintage feel-good media day hype that would excite the fans.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery and Cook’s teammates also fed the storyline by saying it was incredible how much better Cook was at the rim compared to his freshman season. They also said he was shooting with more confidence and expanding his range.
The problem is that Cook can’t get to the rim against defenses that are now designed to keep him from the basket and he seems reluctant to shoot jumpers from beyond a few feet.
Opponents are daring Cook to shoot medium-range jumpers and will continue to do so until he proves that he can make them with some consistency.
Part of being a star player is learning to expand your game and that’s the challenge facing Cook at this stage.
His limitations probably won’t be exposed when 4-6 Iowa faces Southern on Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena due to the level of competition. But Cook’s flaws are likely to resurface when the Hawkeyes face better opponents that are familiar with his strengths and weaknesses.
It’s sort of like playing chess in that opposing defenses have made a move and now it’s time for Cook to counter the move by expanding his game.
Iowa’s problems go way beyond Cook’s struggles. The point guard position is a major concern and so is the lack of consistency on both ends of the floor. You never know which of the Iowa players will step up on a given night.
But Cook is supposed to be Iowa’s best player, so the spotlight shines brightest on him during good and bad times. It wouldn't make sense to write a column about the fourth or fifth best player on the team struggling.
Cook said on Twitter after the loss to Indiana on Monday that he has to be better. That’s a good sign because it shows that he is accountable and doesn't make excuses.
He also seems highly respected and popular with his teammates, and he plays unselfishly, sometimes too unselfishly on offense. That doesn't mean Cook should start forcing the issue on offense, but he should trust himself more as a shooter.
Cook hasn’t been shy about saying his goal is to the play in the NBA sooner than later. It was even suggested at media day that this might be Cook’s final season in college.
Cook’s former high school teammate, Jayson Tatum, is a rookie with the Boston Celtics and the two friends look forward to being reunited in the NBA.
There is nothing wrong with thinking big and setting lofty goals for yourself.
However, Cook’s performance against Iowa State shows that he still has a ways to go in that regard.
The NBA isn’t going anywhere, so Cook has no reason to be in a rush or pre-occupied with his future.
If he is good enough to play in the NBA, the opportunity will present itself at some point.
Cook should only be concerned with improving his game on a daily basis because his team desperately needs him to play better.
He came to Iowa from St. Louis as a four-star recruit and lived up to the hype last season by making the Big Ten All-Freshmen team.
Cook also made his final 15 shots last season, so it was easy to assume that his game was on the rise.
And it still could be.
Cook has two-thirds of his sophomore season still left to play, so there is plenty of time for him to lift his game to another level.
But his team needs it to happen sooner than later.