IOWA CITY — The Iowa men’s basketball team has played two Big Ten games this year without Tyler Cook and one without Luka Garza.
They are starters and the team’s top two scorers in conference play. They are vital players, period. Yet, it might not be a reach to suggest the Hawkeyes can less afford to be without Nicholas Baer.
Which is a possibility Saturday when Iowa plays at Rutgers (5 p.m., CT). Baer is in concussion protocol for something that occurred in the Hawkeyes’ 80-79 win over Northwestern Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. He crouched in pain late in the game and was taken to his team’s trainers’ room.
Precisely what happened to the senior forward and when, no one knows.
“If you can figure it out, let me know,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said Thursday. “We looked at everything. I didn’t see anything. We look at different angles ... and we really tried to zero in. When, where. The only collision we saw was going in one direction and he was holding the other side of his face, so I don’t know if he got hit earlier and didn’t realize it.”
There is good news. “I’m happy to report he’s doing a lot better.” said McCaffery. “If we played a game in the middle of the week he wouldn’t have been able to play, but he’s got a shot now.”
Baer’s presence certainly would be valuable, as always. Four of the 10 players in Rutgers’ rotation are between 6-foot-9 and 7-foot, and leading scorer Eugene Omoruyi is 6-7 and 240 pounds.
Baer is no major-college giant at 6-7, 218 pounds, but he gets things done and provides a veteran’s savvy. Despite being sixth on the 17th-ranked Hawkeyes (19-5) in minutes played, he has five more steals (29) and over twice as many blocked shots (26) than any teammate, and is second on the Hawkeyes in rebounds per minute.
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Though Iowa has a senior class of just one player, it will be a tough class to replace. Baer’s role may be filled next season by a freshman, 6-8 Patrick McCaffery.
That McCaffery became Iowa City West’s career scoring leader Wednesday night.
“Nicholas Baer graduates and we have a need for his skill set,” Fran McCaffery said. “(Patrick) is a versatile guy. He’s more of a hybrid, which is kind of the way the game is going. The 6-6 to 6-9 player that kind of plays every position.
“He can play the 4, he can play the 3, he can play the 2, he can bring it down. He’s got really good feel. And I think his experience at West High and in the summer, he’s been in winning programs his whole life. He’s won, and that’s what you want. You want guys who understand how to win.”
In the meantime, the Hawkeyes will happily ride with Baer, whether it’s Saturday or not until the following game, next Tuesday at home against Maryland.
Baer has been a non-starter most of his career, but he has played in 118 games, is ninth on Iowa’s all-time blocks list, and is the team’s only player with NCAA Tournament experience.
On Saturday, his team has a much better chance of earning a fourth-straight win with him than without him.
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