Nicholas Baer: The heart of the Hawkeyes

Iowa sophomore an essential part of team success as Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — After the Iowa men’s basketball team beat Penn State, senior Peter Jok had just wrapped up a regular season in which he led the Big Ten in scoring at 20.2 points per game and — though he didn’t know it at that moment — was headed for First Team All-Big Ten honors.

Despite those facts, that guy, the guy who fueled so much of what the Hawkeyes have done well this season, offered up someone else as the spark behind Iowa’s success.

“(Nicholas) Baer is the heart of this team,” Jok said. “He’s a great leader. He’s helped me be a great leader, too.”

In that same media room, just a few minutes later, head coach Fran McCaffery sat in that same seat and let everyone know exactly how much he agreed with his senior leader.

Yes, Jok has to score and distribute for Iowa to be successful. Yes, Jordan Bohannon has to take care of the ball, also distribute and knock down some more 3s. Yes, Tyler Cook has to rebound and score in the post. Yes, Cordell Pemsl has to continue to finish at the rim and continue his recent successful run of defending the rim. Yes, the rest of the Hawkeyes have to continue to fulfill their roles as they have during the four-game winning streak, headed into the Big Ten Tournament opener against Indiana at Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. on Thursday at 5:30 p.m.

But as much as anything or anyone that drives Iowa’s success, Baer might be the most integral part on and off the floor.

As Jok said, Baer’s vocal leadership — as just a sophomore — is vital. Don’t forget, though, that McCaffery and Co. will rightly tell anyone who will listen that the 2016-17 Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year is far more than just a leader.

“I mean, he’s one of the best players in the league, without question,” McCaffery said after the Penn State game. “He just keeps getting better. He impacts the game when we put him in. He settles everybody down. He helps you on the glass, helps you defensively, helps you against the press, from 3-point range, offensive rebound putbacks, deflections. He’s everywhere and he’s really smart.”

Every bit of 6-foot-7, Baer affects the game in nearly every aspect, as McCaffery said.

The Bettendorf grad is the only Division I player this year, and one of only two Big Ten players in the last 20 years — joined by Michigan State grad Draymond Green in 2012 — to reach 235 points, 45 steals, 40 3-pointers and 35-plus blocks in a season.

He leads the Hawkeyes in rebounding at 6.0 per game, and adds 7.6 points, 1.5 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. The blocks are often against much bigger post players and often coming from the back side, as Cook pointed out, “He’s really good at anticipating. He puts himself in the right position defensively … He’s in great position, but he’s long and athletic, so he can get up and contest a lot of shots.”

He’s been even better to finish the season, averaging 17 points and 7.5 rebounds and going 8 of 9 from 3-point range in the Hawkeyes’ two games last week.

Baer ranks in the top 20 individually in eight advanced stat categories on KenPom.com, too. He’s fourth in steal percentage, eighth in effective field goal percentage and 10th in block percentage and offensive rating.

All that, and he comes off the bench. Sixth Man of the Year, indeed.

Once more from McCaffery, for emphasis:

“As I said the other day, it’s great when you’re recognized by other people in the league for what you do, but from where I sit, he’s one of the best players in our league,” McCaffery said. “(He) happens to come off the bench for us, and I’m glad he plays for us.”

Typical Baer, the sophomore didn’t spend much time talking about himself when speaking to media on Tuesday ahead of Iowa’s final practice before leaving for D.C.

He gave teammates credit for being a huge part of the reason he was recognized, then congratulated Jok on his All-Big Ten selection and Bohannon and Cook for their All-Freshman selections. Then it was on to Indiana, as you’d expect.

But what he did talk about at length was his fondness for coming off the bench.

Baer started the first eight games of the season and two more during Big Ten play when McCaffery deemed the Hawkeyes in desperate need for more of a spark to start the game following three straight in which Iowa found itself down at least 8-0 to start.

From his perspective, coming off the bench allows Baer to size the game up a bit. He’s talked with McCaffery about his role. Baer said Tuesday, “It’s not really all that much of a conversation. It’s, ‘Hey, here’s what we need,’ and I said, ‘All right.’ It’s never been too much of an ego thing or anything like that.”

Whatever happens in the future in terms of Baer’s status as a starter or bench player, that will come when it comes. For right now, his role is an essential function of what the Hawkeyes do — and could be one of the biggest factors in Iowa extending its season.

“Whatever they want me to do, I’ll do it,” Baer said. “I can see some things that might need to be changed a little differently. (I can see) where some things are working for us — maybe Tyler’s scoring really well in the low post and we need to continue to get him the ball, or maybe Pete hasn’t had a shot yet and (I need to) set a good screen for Pete or find Pete when he’s open. … I like coming off the bench, and being fresh when everyone else is a little bit winded always helped me, too.

“At the end of the day, it’s just how I can impact the game. … More than anything, it’s just understanding your role on the team.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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