IOWA CITY — At some point within the next month or so, Tyler Cook will have a big decision to make.
Iowa’s robust junior forward entered his name into the NBA draft pool last spring but decided to return to the college ranks for another season. He’ll undoubtedly consider testing the waters again this spring and could decide to stay in the draft this time.
But those decisions are off on the horizon. Cook said he hasn’t even started to think about it. He has other matters to attend to right now.
“I feel like our team is in a good position to be in the NCAA tournament so I owe it to myself and my teammates to be 100 percent locked in to that and figure out how to get this team as good as we can be,’’ Cook said. “That’s been my main focus since day one and it’s going to stay that way.’’
The immediate task at hand is helping the Hawkeyes snap a four-game losing streak tonight in the second round of the Big Ten tournament. Iowa is the No. 6 seed and will play in the final game of the day against the winner of Wednesday’s game between Illinois and Northwestern.
Cook has had a good enough season to earn second-team All-Big Ten honors from the media and third team from the coaches, but he goes into the post-season on the heels of two of his worst games of the season.
The 6-foot-9 St. Louis native was just 2 for 8 from the field and 5 for 11 from the free throw line and fouled out for only the third time in his career in a 93-91 overtime loss to Nebraska on Sunday. In the game before that, he was held scoreless for the first time in his career in a loss at Wisconsin.
“They're coming after him, they're picking him up early, they're doubling him, they're being physical with him,’’ Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said.
“It's funny because you look at his numbers and say ‘Well, he didn't shoot it well the last couple of games,’ but he still had nine (points) and nine (rebounds) in the last game. I thought he did some good things off the dribble to create shots for others and that's not something you typically think about with Tyler Cook … When you're getting defended like he is, you've got to make plays for other people, and he's doing that.’’
Cook, who is averaging 15 points per game for the season despite his recent slump, has seen about every sort of special defense over the course of the season.
“It’s just my job to figure out how to combat that,’’ he said. “My numbers haven’t been great the past few games. It’s sort of a byproduct of our team not playing as well. I always say this is the fun part. You get to figure out a way to get better and how to get through it.’’
While he has had to constantly adjust to different defensive tactics in order to find ways to score, Cook has improved in many other facets of the game.
He has already reached career highs in assists and steals. He has become a better defender and has evolved into a much more consistent rebounder. He has grabbed five or more rebounds in 24 consecutive games.
“And even at that, I feel like I’ve got a ways to go,’’ Cook said. “I feel like I should be a double-digit rebounder every night. Obviously, some nights are better than others but it’s like I said a few weeks ago, I’d rather feel that way than feel I can’t get any better. As long as I feel I can get better, that’s a good thing for me.’’
One area in which he has not shown improvement: Cook still has not developed into an effective outside shooter. He is 0 for 6 from 3-point range this season. Opposing defenses often stand back and allow him to launch mid-range jumpers.
As a result, his pro stock may not have risen as much this season as he might have hoped, but Cook insists that wasn’t one of his primary objectives for this season anyway.
“I just wanted to come in and try to help us win as many games as possible,’’ he said. “Although we’ve had a tough time the past few games, I’ve been able to do that. We went from winning 14 games to 21 games.
“I’m not taking all the credit for it. Obviously, the rest of the guys have done more than their part in having that kind of success. But that was my goal at the beginning of the year, to get us to the (NCAA) tournament and get us above 20 wins, and we’ve accomplished that. It feels good to be a part of that.’’