Cook 'progressing' after missing time earlier in season with concussion

Dec. 17—CHAMPAIGN — Makira Cook spent more time than she wanted on the couch in her apartment in November.

The Illinois women's basketball senior point guard had to, though, while she recovered from a concussion.

The 5-foot-6 Cincinnati native confirmed her injury on Friday morning while standing on the women's practice court at Ubben Basketball Complex. It was the first time the details of what kept Cook out for Illinois' first three games of the 2023-24 season were revealed.

Cook, who sustained her head injury in the Illini's exhibition game against Truman State on Oct. 30, wasn't fully cleared until the final two practices before Illinois played then-No. 16 Notre Dame in Washington, D.C. That first game back, a 79-68 loss to the Irish on Nov. 18, saw Cook play 32 minutes as a starter and finish 6 of 13 from the field en route to 14 points. But Cook also committed seven turnovers with Notre Dame freshman sensation Hannah Hidalgo a big reason the Illini backcourt — Genesis Bryant and Cook especially — struggled throughout the 11-point loss.

Nearly a full month later, Cook's comeback from a head injury remains a work in progress. Fresh off becoming the Illinois program's first All-Big Ten First-Team performer since 2013 as a junior last season, Cook has posted a shooting slash of .349/.318/.667 while averaging 11.4 points per game with more turnovers (17) than assists (10) through five games this season.

Like Cook, the Illini have also shown inconsistencies trying to build upon last season's 22-win NCAA tournament team. Instead, Illinois — even with all five starters from last winter running it back for year two with Shauna Green as coach — finds its season at a crossroads with three losses (all to high-major opponents, including the eye-opening 84-48 rout Michigan handed the Illini in last Sunday's Big Ten opener at State Farm Center) and no notable wins.

Still, there's plenty of time to reverse course. And what Cook does during the next two-plus months, starting with Sunday's 3 p.m. Braggin' Rights showdown with Missouri (7-4) at State Farm Center, could largely determine whether Illinois (5-3) is able to do just that and live up to heightened preseason expectations.

'She's going to fight'

Cook referenced "getting back in a rhythm" several times Friday as she relayed the most difficult parts in her recovery as the All-Big Ten preseason guard has tried to make up for the time she's lost due to her injury.

"I feel like I am progressing each day," Cook said. "I think I'm the type that I get hard on myself, just like anybody's who's competitive, so it was just taking each day as it is ... and just continuing to learn every day. For me, in the aspect of basketball, it's all about rhythm. ... I kind of popped back into shape OK, it was hard obviously, but it was mostly about that rhythm and just finding my groove again."

Cook has provided glimpses this season of what she produced for the Illini last season. Not yet the same version of Cook that took over games. But rather a play here or there. Like the three-pointer Cook made early in the first quarter of the Michigan loss when Cook rejected a ball screen from 6-foot-2 forward Kendall Bostic and had Michigan guard Elissa Brett on the floor after a crossover dribble freed Cook up for the open shot.

It's that willingness from Cook to hunt her shot and stay aggressive on the offensive end that Green has liked from her star point guard. The tough part is Cook hasn't found many easy looks. And is missing some of the same good shots she made last season when the Dayton transfer, in her first Big Ten season, was a 41.4 percent shooter and made 34.2 percent from beyond the arc en route to averaging 18.3 points. That scoring mark ranked fourth in the Big Ten, behind only Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (27.8), Indiana forward Mackenzie Holmes (22.3) and Maryland guard Diamond Miller (19.7).

Cook matched her season-high point total with 14 last Sunday against the Wolverines but it came with a lack of efficiency as she went 5 for 17.

"The thing that I love about Makira is she's going to fight. She kept attacking (against Michigan)," Green said. "She didn't make every shot, but she never stopped. She was relentless in that, and we need those mindsets. It's the Big Ten. You are going to have someone bigger on you, stronger on you, and what is your mindset going to be? Are you going to keep attacking, or because they're pressuring her, are you going to back off? ... You can see it coming back a little bit, but then we need other people to hit shots, too, because when people aren't hitting shots, what happens is all the defense starts collapsing in, and it's hard."

'A learning experience'

That Cook has experienced adversity through the first month of her senior season followed an offseason in which Cook experienced highs and lows.

The early part of the offseason saw Cook attend training camp in May and June for Team USA basketball in Colorado Springs, Colo., in an effort to make the U.S. roster for the 2023 FIBA Women's AmeriCup. Cook fell just short in final roster cuts. The 12-player U.S. team, which featured South Carolina guard Raven Johnson, Tennessee guard Jewel Spear, Tennessee forward Rickea Jackson, Michigan guard Laila Phelia, Oregon guard Chance Gray, North Carolina guard Deja Kelly, LSU forward Angel Reese, UCLA guard Charisma Osborne, Columbia guard Abigail Hsu, Southern California center/forward Rayah Marshall, Texas A&M forward Janiah Barker and UCLA center Lauren Betts, finished as the silver medalists in Leon, Mexico, after a 69-58 loss to Brazil in the final.

That time with Team USA proved beneficial, though. Even if it didn't end with Cook landing one of the coveted final roster spots.

"It was definitely a learning experience," Cook said. "Going into it, I feel like I trained like a pro and I think that was very important to have a summer of that before my senior year because I have aspirations of playing beyond (college), but it was a good experience. It was interesting. It was different and it was hard.

"I learned that the work you put in it will directly show, and I think I did really good. I was very proud of the work that I put in."

Illinois assistant coach Calamity McEntire, too, noticed that a different Cook arrived back in C-U after the U.S. training camp in Colorado. That McEntire works most directly with the Illinois point guards means she understands the growth Cook has undergone as much as anyone else on Green's staff.

McEntire described Cook as "one of the most resilient young woman I've ever been around." But what has impressed McEntire most is Cook's capacity to process information. Especially as Illinois has added more to her responsibilities.

"At her position, and being a leader on our team as a point guard and then one of our better players, Makira has to learn and know everyone's positions as a point guard," McEntire said. "She's got to know where everyone's got to be, what they're supposed to do and make sure they're in the right place before we ever start a play, and then she's got to know when we call a play what we're looking for, what we want and beyond that, reading how the defense plays it and knowing what the options are.

"Like coming off a ball screen and the primary defender is out of the play reading the secondary defender as early as possible to be able to know what next pass is going to be available or making sure when you're the scoring option, making them stop you, before making one of those reads. Within every offensive set we run and every defensive principle we have, Makira is constantly learning and growing and developing the mindset of a point guard."

'She felt all of that'

Perhaps, it's no secret then why the Illini haven't resembled the team they were last winter through the first month of the season. When Cook is at her best, Illinois follows suit.

Cook realizes the pressure those expectations place on her. But the senior guard has embraced the expectations.

"I look forward to it," Cook said, "because I feel like my whole career it's just where I'm supposed to be right now. Freshman year, growth year, learn year. Sophomore year, kind of stepped into myself a little bit, still learning, still growing. Junior year, when I came (to Illinois), OK, now it's time to step into a new role. Senior year, I'm still in a leadership role, but it's even a newer role this year."

That doesn't mean the Illini staff hasn't tried to alleviate some of that burden. That's come in various forms. Like sending videos to Cook of the highlight-reel plays she's made in the past. Or Green meeting individually with her point guard this past week for some one-on-one film time. Another way for Green to not just drive home positive messages but give Cook a clearer sense of what the Illinois coach is seeing from the sideline.

The end goal? Cook helping the Illini look more like the team that entered the 2023-24 season ranked in The Associated Press preseason Top 25. And not the one that looked punchless against Michigan.

"I'd be crazy if I said there's not pressure on (Cook)," Green said. "There's pressure on everybody. There's heightened pressure with her. I think she felt all of that, so I'm just trying to get her to step back and remember what she's really elite at. Then, relaxing and playing the game that you love."