IOWA CITY — Nicholas Baer already defied whatever odds can be placed on a walk-on guard for a Big Ten men’s basketball team. Generally speaking, walk-ons rarely become a major contributor, let alone one on which a team relies.
But everyone saw what Baer became during Iowa’s 2015-16 season. His seemingly relentless energy and short memory made him a fan favorite in a hurry.
Baer was a walk-on bench player then. Now he’s a scholarship starter, having started the Hawkeyes’ exhibition against Regis, and likely earning the start for the season-opener Friday against Kennesaw State. He earned what he’s gotten from Coach Fran McCaffery — just like one former player did.
“I kind of look at him like (Anthony) Clemmons,” McCaffery said. “Last year, I’ve said this many times, I did not want to start Anthony Clemmons. I wanted to bring him off the bench. To his credit, he earned his starting position. I felt like I owed that to him. You work hard and do what we ask you to do and deserve to start, I’ll start you. That’s kind of where Nicholas is right now.”
Baer played in all 33 games for the 22-11 Hawkeyes last season, averaging 4.8 points and 2.6 rebounds off the bench.
And while those aren’t overwhelming numbers, they didn’t have to be. Baer’s role with veteran scorer Jarrod Uthoff, as well as Peter Jok, Mike Gesell, Dom Uhl and Anthony Clemmons was to provide a change of pace and a spark off the bench at the guard position.
His role this season will be amplified, and that’s precisely because of what he did with those chances he earned last season. McCaffery said at Iowa’s media day that Baer is the kind of player who will, essentially, ignore everything around him to make the play he’s been taught to make. That includes what he or anyone else did on the previous trip down the floor, and it includes what his body is telling him.
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“If you remember last year, some of his better games we had to get him out. He kind of goes to exhaustion, and as he gets stronger, everything that he does translates well, whether you’re coming off the bench or whether you’re a starter,” McCaffery said. “He makes plays, he makes shots, he rebounds the ball, he defends, and he plays both ends. He thinks the game through. He truly understands the game plan and how we do our scouting and preparation.
“I mean, he’s as professional as they come. So he’s going to be a very important part of our team for the next three years.”
Baer had nine points and seven rebounds on 3 of 6 shooting in Iowa’s 95-73 exhibition win against Regis last Friday. He had the first five points for the Hawkeyes, on a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws.
But it was after that, a move he made that might’ve gone largely unnoticed that showed some of the work Baer put in over the offseason. Last year he was a hustle play guy on defense and a shooter on offense, but said he wanted to improve his ball handling and off-the-dribble attacking. He did that Friday, driving past his defender for a layup in the first half.
His aggressiveness is what got him on the floor in the first place, and adding facets to that is what will keep him out there going forward.
He said not much has changed in how he approaches the game, but what has is the benefit of experience. Knowing what he has to do — through trial and error last season — to make himself a successful Division I athlete is invaluable.
“I think understanding your body and what I needed to do in the offseason to help me, I had to put on weight, increase stamina, but also with a third year under my belt, knowing what’s expected of me (is big),” Baer said. “I think it’s just knowing what I did to be successful, to get here, and continuing to do that.”
Baer has never really seemed to be stirred too much by the attention his position with the Hawkeyes brings.
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Almost every athlete in college sports will tell you — or try to tell you, anyway — they don’t listen to what goes on outside the locker room. In Baer’s case, most of the questions he’s asked with cameras and recorders in his face are met with a shrug. He knows what works for him, and that’s not caring about a thing other than what his coaches and teammates think, and how he carries himself as an individual.
The Hawkeyes will need that energy-with-blinders in a big way this season.
“I’ve never thought too much of (the attention),” Baer said. “I’m going to stick with what’s been successful for me, and that’s making energy plays and knocking down shots.
“When I got tired (last year), my shot got a little flat. I think that’s true for most shooters. I think when my energy level is high, good things happen.”
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