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By JAMES ALLAN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — It wasn’t going to be a ‘just because’ reason if Tyler Cook changed his uniform number with the University of Iowa men’s basketball program.
When Cook elected to retire his No. 5 Hawkeye jersey following the 2017-18 season, he drew upon his faith. He chose No. 5 as a freshman because in the bible, grace represents the No. 5. When Dom Uhl’s No. 25 became available, Cook did more research.
“Twenty-five is five times five,” explained Cook. “I looked it up to see if it had a biblical reference and it is grace multiplied. I prayed on it and talked to my family (and I decided to make the switch).
“It doesn’t seem like it’s that big of a change, but I wanted to represent something bigger than myself. My relationship with God is the No. 1 priority in my life, so I wanted to do that to symbolize growth in myself and my relationship with God.”
The Hawkeyes are counting on Cook’s growth on the basketball court during the 2018-19 season. The St. Louis native returns after being Iowa’s leading scorer (15.3 points) and rebounder (6.8) as a sophomore, while also leading the team with a 56.6 field goal percentage.
Cook scored 20-or-more points nine times and posted seven double-doubles to earn honorable mention All-Big Ten honors from coaches and media last season.
“You look at his numbers (last year) and you expect them to go up,” said Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery. “He expects those numbers to go up. When that happens, we will be a better team.
“I think you’ll see a confident, physical, and determined competitor. That will be infectious to the rest of the team every time we take the floor.”
After electing to remove his name from the NBA Draft and return to school in May, Cook got a jumpstart on his junior season in August by attending the Nike Basketball Academy — a developmental camp limited to 25 of the nation’s best collegiate players.
“The only way you can survive and make yourself noticed (at that camp) is to play hard and give it everything you have,” said Cook. “The thing I have been thinking about recently is being able to carry that same energy I had there to myself and my team here.
“I have been trying to bring that energy every day and trying to help other guys see that as well. Hopefully that can be contagious to our whole group.”
Cook has been an energizer and crowd-pleaser with his high-flying dunking ability since stepping on campus as a freshman. Ironically, the first time Cook dunked leading into his freshman year of high school, nobody was there to see it.
“I was at a rec center by my house by myself,” said Cook. “I hadn’t really tried (dunking) many times before, but I went up for it and got it, but nobody saw it or believed me.”
Cook developed into a consistent dunker following his freshman season at Chaminade Prep, where he went on to become the 38th best player nationally in the class of 2016. He credits former coach/trainer Daryl Leonard with instilling the dunk-at-all-cost mindset.
“(Coach Leonard) used to get mad at me when I had a chance to dunk and I didn’t,” Cook said. “At first when you’re getting into that stage of being able to dunk consistently, you don’t think about it. You just lay it up.
“(Leonard) would get on me every time I had a chance and wouldn’t dunk. Ever since then, I have been dunk first, layup second.”
Cook’s favorites as a Hawkeye include a dunk over three Illini players at the 2018 Big Ten Tournament, a one-handed slam over Penn State’s Shep Garner in Carver-Hawkeye Arena as a freshman, and going behind the back before sending one home against Michigan last season.
What goes through Cook’s mind when he goes up for one of those rim-rattling jams?
“I almost black out,” said Cook. “I will be conscious when I am taking a couple of dribbles into it, but when I take my 1-2 step, I black out, and it almost goes in slow motion. The Penn State dunk, Shep Garner was pretty far out, but I was like, ‘I am going to go for it anyway.’
“I took a couple dribbles and jumped and I am like, ‘I am not getting to the rim. There is no chance I will get to the rim.’ I remember floating in the air, waiting for myself to get to the rim, but I got there. Thank God, because I am sure coach would have had me on the bench had I not made that one.”
With it engrained in his DNA, Cook is always going to be a ferocious dunker, but leading into his junior season, he wants to be a complete player.
“The Xs and Os take care of themselves,” said Cook. “I have become a smarter basketball player over the summer and offseason. I understood the game and I will be able to execute the game better this season. My knowledge has improved and I will be able to do things I haven’t been able to in the past.
“I have put in a ton of hours, getting reps up shooting, both game reps and different reps I’ll get in our offense. My focus has been being consistent and making sure my motion is fluid and my mechanics are consistent.”
McCaffery has seen steady growth in Cook’s skills and he sees a player ready to lead.
“He’s handling the ball better, is all over the glass, and is making plays off the dribble,” said McCaffery. “All the things that were within his game, he is doing more consistently and it has been fun to watch.
“This year (Tyler) sees himself as a guy that can take charge of the locker room on a daily basis. He’s a guy when he speaks, everybody listens. His attitude and positive mindset is going to be critical.”
Cook’s leadership will be paramount, as the Hawkeyes look to rebound from a forgettable 2017-18 season. The Hawkeyes finished with a 14-19 record.
“The guys are hungry to get started because of the results last year,” Cook said. “We can’t forget about it because there is something to be learned about that experience. We still go back and watch film of things we did well and didn’t do well because if you don’t learn from your mistakes, they’re bound to happen again.
“You want to get rid of the sour taste, but we have to use that experience to help us get better.”
Cook’s growth will be a major part of that regardless of what jersey he’s wearing.
“I expect him to be one of the best players in the country, not just our league,” said McCaffery. “I think that’s the expectation he has for himself.”