IOWA CITY — The first six games of this season, the Iowa men’s basketball team was missing something.
Nicholas Baer has been the proverbial spark of energy for the Hawkeyes essentially his entire career, and the team had several slow starts in his absence. It even carried over into his return a bit, particularly against Penn State — the first game this season in which he started.
But while he’s taken the better part of a month to work his way back from the broken pinkie that kept him out, the Baer everyone got used to seeing has made an emphatic return in the last two games. He’s started three straight, and the Hawkeyes have won all three. They’ve also started games much faster and with more effectiveness than the beginning of the season.
Coach Fran McCaffery said Baer is “close, but he’s not there yet,” in terms of being at his full potential. The recent surge in Iowa’s fortunes has a lot to do with him, but more importantly has bolstered improvements across the board.
“It starts with him, no question,” McCaffery said in a teleconference Thursday. “He’s been terrific with his energy level and his experience. Across the board I think (Tyler) Cook has been outstanding, (Jack) Nunge, while last Saturday (against Drake) he was just OK because he was under the weather, he was still pretty good. (Luka) Garza off the bench has been a monster, and we need that from him.
“We’ll see if the starting lineup continues to stay the way it is. We’ve got a number of different options. That group, the last three games, has been really good.”
It would be hard to argue any of that, other than the only nitpick being the level of competition.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Still, as McCaffery said, it’s started with Baer. The Bettendorf product ventured into quadruple-double territory in the Hy-Vee Classic against Drake, going for 11 points, a career-high 14 rebounds, five assists and five steals in a blowout victory. He backed that up with five points, 10 rebounds, two assists and two steals Tuesday against Southern Utah.
Baer has started alongside Cook, Nunge, Jordan Bohannon and Isaiah Moss in the last three games, and while Nunge had a rough go of it against Drake — five points, no rebounds, no assists and two turnovers in just 10 minutes — outside that performance he and Baer have played well when both were on the floor.
Both are essentially interchangeable at what traditionally are the small forward and power forward positions, and that’s made for a lot of versatility for Iowa in how it attacks other teams.
“Both, not only can they play the 3, 4 and 5, they know the spots,” McCaffery said Tuesday after the Southern Utah game. “Nicholas is really good for Jack because if Jack has any hesitation about what he’s supposed to do, where he’s supposed to go, Nicholas tells him. That’s what Nicholas brings in the game. Even if (Baer) doesn’t have a great game, he’s valuable in that capacity.
“It’s equally valuable on both sides (offensively and defensively).”
Iowa (7-6) heads northwest Friday to play Pac-12 foe Colorado (8-3) at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D. (8 p.m. on BTN), serving as the last Power 5 conference test before Big Ten play restarts, with Northern Illinois coming in between.
Whether or not Iowa can continue to play the same level of basketball it’s seen in those last three games remains to be seen, but the Hawkeyes believe these last couple games before conference play restarts will be a barometer for whether or not the wins were a flash in the pan.
Baer probably won’t need to average 12 rebounds for Iowa to keep playing as they have, but it sure wouldn’t hurt.
“I think we’ve definitely been playing well this last week or so for sure,” Baer said Tuesday. “We’re going to see some tougher competition coming up and we’re really looking forward to our game on Friday. I think that’s going to be a really good test to see where we are, it’ll be indicative of that. As coach (Andrew) Francis says, it’s a process. We’re going to stick with it.”
l Comments: (319) 368-8884; firstname.lastname@example.org