Struggling Iowa Hawkeyes need to lean on Baer

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Nicholas Baer has been back for two games for the Iowa men’s basketball team and has yet to record an assist.

The junior forward hasn’t found his shot either — making just 4 of 16.

But Baer may be as vital as any Hawkeye in snapping a two-game losing streak Monday at Indiana (7 p.m., BTN) — and in solving the team’s problems at backup point guard.

Late in Saturday’s 77-73 loss to Penn State, it was Baer who was running alongside Jordan Bohannon in Iowa’s backcourt. At 6-foot-7, that is not Baer’s normal position. He started the game at small forward.

Iowa Hawkeyes forward Nicholas Baer (51) grabs a loose ball as Penn State Nittany Lions forward Lamar Stevens (11) defends during the first half at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Baer’s versatility is his biggest strength, and the Hawkeyes (4-4, 0-1 Big Ten Conference) need it now more than ever, with Bohannon averaging 35 minutes in the past five games — four of them losses.

Freshman point guard Connor McCaffery remains out of the lineup with mononucleosis.

Junior Brady Ellingson, a natural shooting guard, has been ineffective trying to be Bohannon’s backup, with no points in five games. He played a mere 6 minutes Saturday.

“I think I can,” Baer said when asked if he could be a “point forward” for the Hawkeyes. “That’s been a position I’m comfortable with — just taking the ball off a rebound and just pushing it.”

Baer missed Iowa’s first six games with a broken left pinkie. He has played 48 minutes in two games since returning and has shown some rust, with four turnovers. But he earned his way into the starting lineup Saturday and remains Iowa’s most trusted veteran player.

“He helps you win so many different ways,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of Baer. “Like the play, when it looked like they were going to go up nine or whatever, runs the ball down and gets the rebound, and we end up with a dunk at the other end. I mean, those kinds of plays are so valuable to a team.

“Veteran guy, gives you another stretch player that can, if we're going to throw the ball inside, then we've got to have some guys that can make threes. You put him and Isaiah (Moss) and J. Bo out there, and they can typically give our big guys some space.”

Now, Baer must give Iowa some ball-handling, another option to take some pressure off of Bohannon, who is drawing the bulk of the opponent’s defensive attention.

“I try to attack the game the same way every time I go on the floor. It just depends on who I’m guarding,” Baer said of his comfort playing a variety of positions.

He is confident his shooting touch is rounding into form and hasn’t hesitated to launch jumpers when open. Baer and the Hawkeyes figure to get plenty of clean looks against the Hoosiers (4-4, 0-1), who rank last in the Big Ten by allowing 75.1 points per game.

But they must learn to embrace the scouting report. That was an issue identified by both Baer and sophomore forward Cordell Pemsl after Saturday’s home loss, a game Iowa never led.

“It’s early December, so there’s still a lot of basketball that we’re going to play. But at the same token, there’s got to be a sense of urgency to improve. We know we’re not playing our best basketball right now,” Baer said.

“Consistency has been a common key for us. I think it starts with how we execute the game plan.”

Pemsl, who scored 10 points in 19 minutes against the Nittany Lions, elaborated:

“We’re kind of in our own world and we’re not translating game plans to the floor, and I think once we do that, then we’ll be OK. But I think this is something where we need to come together and we need to understand that this isn’t how Iowa basketball plays and this isn’t the intensity level that we need to be playing with,” he said.

“We can’t look back at this game and have any sympathy for any of us. I just don’t think we’re fully committed to taking that scouting report and using it in the game.”

That’s a big challenge for Iowa, which has only one day in between its first two Big Ten games of the season. It will be evident Monday how well the Hawkeyes have met it.

It will also be evident how much more Baer can provide for a team in desperate need of leadership.