IOWA CITY — Iowa sophomore Ryan Kriener isn’t afraid of you.
He’s not afraid of anyone, really. During an AAU game once, Kriener said an opponent “kept talking trash,” so Kriener said, “I said, ‘hit me,’ and he punched me in the face.’ I’ve never been afraid of that stuff.”
Not that he’ll be asking a Big Ten opponent to punch him, but Kriener’s intensity, the confidence with which he carries himself, coupled with that lack of fear related to the game of basketball makes him a guy all his teammates want to play with.
Being unafraid can’t really be taught. When you play in the frontcourt, especially in the Big Ten, things get physical.
“He’s not afraid of physical contact, and he’s not afraid of a skirmish, at all,” Coach Fran McCaffery said. “And that’s one of the reasons we recruited him. He’s a nasty dude.”
McCaffery’s wry smile after coining the term of the year (so far) for one of his players was met with a big smile and agreement from all his players.
Kriener laughed, too, but in that way where he was acknowledging the truth. It wasn’t in a braggadocios way, rather more matter of fact. McCaffery’s comments weren’t a metaphor or a joke, even if it was said with a smile. Kriener doesn’t mess around, and if the “hit me” story wasn’t enough, Kriener made it clear Wednesday what it means to be a nasty dude.
“It’s pretty self-explanatory; I’m not afraid to get in a fight on the floor or anything,” Kriener said through a laugh. “I think it just means I’m willing to get down and dirty, sprint the floor, go after loose balls and do the less glamorous stuff — set a hard screen to get someone open.
“You can come at me all you want, but I’m still going to be there fighting.”
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Kriener isn’t going to be taking swings and Hawkeye games aren’t going to become a recreation of the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons 30 for 30, but the attitude with which he plays is a pretty important thing to this team, McCaffery and other Iowa players said. They like to move the ball quickly and Ahmad Wagner dubbed them the “Showtime Hawkeyes” last year, but having a guy who’s willing to get down in the mud, so to speak, and push himself and everyone else so hard you almost have to calm him down is invaluable.
McCaffery has proved to be a highly intense guy himself over the years, so when someone as into the game and as fiercely protective as he is says he has to calm a guy down once in a while, that should reveal plenty.
“There’s times when you try to get him to relax and back off a little bit,” McCaffery said. “But truthfully, I like that about him. ... I think the positives of that far outweigh any negatives. And there’s times when he beats himself up and that’s unfortunate because I never want anybody to do that.
“And the thing about him is, I’m the one that’s kind of putting my arm around him sometimes; it’s OK. Typically, the mistakes he makes are aggressive mistakes, and I think that’s what you always want. You don’t want tentative, passive errors, because that leads to tentative play across the board oftentimes. But he’s not going to make a tentative mistake.”
Kriener’s attitude isn’t unique to the team; it’s maybe just the most obvious.
Forward Cordell Pemsl, who found himself tied up a time or two last year, said he likes to think he’s a nasty dude, too. Given those two play quite a bit together in the second unit, it’s fostered a chemistry that’s fairly plain to see. Neither player is flashy, and while they have distinctly different games, they complement each other.
Their brand of in-your-face, fearless basketball is not unlike those Bad Boy Pistons. Contrast that with the first unit, led by Tyler Cook, Luka Garza and Ahmad Wagner as the big men, which has that Showtime feel.
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“I like that; I like that comparison,” Pemsl said through a laugh. “Our starting unit does a great job setting the tone for the game. Coach has the trust in us as the second unit to go out and do what we need to do.
“Ryan and I, when we go in together, we definitely have that vibe together where we’re clicking on all cylinders. I consider myself a guy like Ryan, where if I see somebody lined up against me, at no point am I scared or am I intimidated by them. I feel like Ryan does that as well.”
Kriener and Pemsl are the kinds of players that can get into an opponent’s head — both for the passes and buckets they make as well as the trash they talk — subtle or otherwise.
There’s probably a good chance one or both of them ends up drawing a technical on an opposing player at some point this year. Putting a player off his game is the mental part of basketball both seem to excel at, and one they both appear to enjoy.
Match that with, in McCaffery’s words, “great chemistry,” that “they both are unselfish guys,” and “enjoy playing that way,” and it makes sense why McCaffery put them together.
“It’s a toughness thing,” Kriener said. “It’s a grit thing. Coach (Andrew) Francis talks a lot about your mindset. You have to be mentally tougher and stronger than a lot of people. I’m trying to embrace that.
“I know (Pemsl’s) game really well; he knows my game really well, so we mesh like that. I feel like we gel really well.”
Iowa (2-0) tips off against Grambling State (0-1) on Thursday night at 7 p.m. in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and the Hawkeyes are expected to be at full strength with the return of freshman Connor McCaffery.
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