The Michigan men’s basketball team (20-1 overall, 9-1 Big Ten) will face its toughest test since losing to Wisconsin two weeks ago when it travels to Iowa City to play Iowa (16-5, 5-5) on Thursday.
The Hawkeyes have been one of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten this season, playing their way into NCAA Tournament contention after missing out in the past two years. They struggled to a program-worst 4-14 Big Ten record a year ago, but have already improved on that win total with five in conference play so far this year — including victories over Ohio State and Nebraska. The biggest improvement has come on the defensive end, where they currently have the nation’s 120th-ranked adjusted defensive efficiency — up from 242nd a year ago.
Offensively, they were 19th last season before improving to 10th this year on the back of a team-leading 16.6 points per game from junior forward Tyler Cook. The Daily sat down with Cook at Big Ten Media Day in October.
The Michigan Daily: What’s been the leadership role of players who were on the team when Iowa last made the NCAA Tournament in 2016?
Tyler Cook: Coming in when I was a freshman, we had Peter Jok. And he was a great leader from the standpoint of, he led by example. When you looked at Pete, he was always the first guy in the gym and always the last guy to leave. So when you ask guys like myself or Jordan (Bohannon) or Nicholas (Baer) or Isaiah (Moss), that was kinda our first impression of what leadership looks like. So whether we choose to lead in that same way or if we choose to be more vocal, we always gotta realize that it starts with what we do first. Holding ourselves accountable as individuals and then we can begin to other accountable as well.
TMD: Do the current players still keep in contact with Jok?
Cook: Yeah, most definitely. I talk to Pete probably a couple times a week, at least. And he’s back on campus during the offseason as well. So we talk with Pete and see Pete all the time.
TMD: What kind of advice does he have for you guys going into the season?
Cook: Really just to keep working, and keep working hard. Because preseason stuff, it only holds so much weight. The real show starts when we get on the floor. So when November comes, we lace them up and we’re ready to go, that’s when it really counts. So he just always tells us to keep working, stay in the lab, don’t listen to what other people have to say. And just do what we know what to do and we’ll be fine.
TMD: Have you looked at the preseason rankings? Do you use them as inspiration?
Cook: I haven’t looked at the team standings yet. But they probably have us at the bottom. We got a team full of guys that have really been overlooked and underrated for the majority of our career so far so it’s nothing new to us. It’s more fuel to the fire and I think we use it to our advantage.
TMD: What went into the decision-making process to enter your name in the NBA draft last summer?
Cook: Toward the end of the season, I pretty much knew what I was gonna do, in terms of putting my name in the draft. I had a lot of interest, got a chance to work out for a lot of good organizations and got some good information as well. Made a lot of new friendships, new relationships and stuff. The decision to come back was tough, but I made it and I’m happy I came back. Hopefully, I’ll be in a better position — whether that be next year or the next year — for myself.
TMD: What feedback did they give you?
Cook: Teams aren’t gonna tell you, ‘Okay, you did bad in today’s workout.’ It’s kinda really on the individual to realize your strengths based on what they say they saw from you over the season, what they say they saw they liked, how you performed in the workout, going to head-to-head with whatever guys they bring in with you. So at the end of the day, they really leave the decision up to you wholeheartedly and let you make your own decision.
TMD: What was coach (Fran) McCaffrey’s advice to you through that process?
Cook: Coach was super supportive of myself and basically just let me know that whatever decision I ended up making, he was 100 percent behind me. He forwarded me all the information that he got, we talked a lot throughout the process. I’d go to him for advice and stuff like that. So coach is — I couldn’t ask for anything more from him throughout that process. He was great and I wouldn’t expect anything else from him.
TMD: Have you used that experience of going through that process to mentor some of the younger guys who might go through that in the future?
Cook: Most definitely. Whenever I get information that can help myself get better or help any of my teammates get better, I always try to forward that on to them. Because I want my guys to be successful as well, in whatever they choose to do. So whatever they ask me, as to how it was like, I give them my honest opinion, what I thought about it, what they’ll see in the future. And I’ll continue to do that as well.