Late in Wisconsin’s blowout victory over American in the first NCAA Tournament game of the afternoon on Thursday at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, spots of bright yellow and green began breaking up the red sea in the lower bowl of the arena.
The Oregon Ducks were sitting on the floor off baseline perpendicular to the American bench, which would prove symbolic for Elgin Cook.
As more people in Ducks green and yellow began to filter in prior to their game against Brigham Young University, and the Ducks took the court, Cook couldn’t help but look for familiar faces.
It was a homecoming for the former Hamilton High School star, who left for Christian Life Center Academy – a prep school in Texas – before his senior year ended in 2011, then went to junior college in Florida before finding a home in Eugene, Ore., as a member of Coach Dana Altman’s program.
He hounded his teammates for additional tickets once the Ducks were placed in Milwaukee, and he couldn’t put a number on the many supporters he expected at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. The smile on his face leading up to tip-off couldn’t be concealed, even if there was some concern, too.
"I think there’s definitely pressure because there’s so many expectations, but at the same time it’s fun," he admitted Wednesday afternoon. "It’s definitely exciting. I’m ready to get out there and ready to play."
He embraced the combination of pressure and excitement, but he worried about the potential effects of its mixture.
"I don’t want the emotion to take me over the top and just come out and not play as well as I want to," he said. "I’m just trying to balance it out."
Cook came into the tournament as a solid, if unspectacular, reserve player for Altman, making just one start in 32 games while averaging 16.3 minutes per game. He led the Ducks in field goal percentage (54.9 percent) but averaged just 6.3 points and 3.6 rebounds per game. He scored in double figures in six of his first nine games, but only once in his final 23.
He admitted he was still learning to play at the high major college level, but that there was a weakness in his game. And it was his father, former Milwaukee Bucks All-Star guard Alvin Robertson, who didn't hesitate to point it out.
"Sometimes I don’t play as hard as he would like me to," Cook said softly. "I’m still working on that."
It was a brutally honest assessment, but one Cook didn’t just shake off as unwanted advice from the Old Man.
"I mean, I agree," he said. "He knows a lot. I can’t not listen to him with the level he played at. He knows what he’s talking about and I’m trying to take it all in."
So, Thursday, Cook was trying to balance not just the combination of emotion and nerves of playing in Milwaukee for the first time in three years, but throwing in the additional ingredient of knowing he doesn’t quite always play hard enough could create a powder keg.
He had just hoped he would explode, rather than implode, with the Ducks’ season on the line.
"It’s motivating me to come out and play harder," he said.
He did, to the tune of a career high 23 points in 23 minutes off the bench in Oregon’s 87-68 victory over BYU, making 8 of his 9 shots from the floor and 7 of his 10 free throws.
And where did he do the most of his damage? Down low, along the baseline, with the pockets of green and yellow roaring in approval.
"They went to the zone and we got some penetration and a lot of good passes to him on the baseline," Altman said. "Richard (Amardi) hit him for one. I think John (Loyd) had six assists, couple of them were to him. I thought our guys did a good job finding him, but I thought his movement in finding the holes in the zone was really good and then he finished."
Cook never stepped foot on the floor at the BMO Harris Bradley Center before the Ducks practiced on Wednesday, the court where his father helped lead the Bucks to two playoff appearances.
It was an important moment. He knew it. He prepared for it. And he excelled within it.
"As far as me, it just makes me want to come out and play well and play harder and show everybody that I belong and maybe I can fit in, I guess," Cook said.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.