IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa basketball fans have seen some blood and plenty of sweat from Nicholas Baer over four seasons.
On Saturday, they’ll see the tears.
“I come from a family of cryers,” Baer said this week, anticipating his final game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “I’ve always been proud to show some emotion. That’s how I play.”
Baer is the lone senior of the Hawkeyes. In many ways, he’s the lifeblood of this year’s team. He will get his sendoff at 3:45 p.m.
No. 21 Iowa (21-7, 10-7 Big Ten Conference) tips off 15 minutes later against Rutgers (13-14, 6-11). That will be shown on BTN. The Baer ceremony will not.
Tickets are nearly sold out. Get there early, Hawkeye fans. You know Baer would appreciate the hustle.
A senior season spent with little brother
Baer’s life has come full circle in his fifth season at Iowa. He arrived from Bettendorf as a 180-pound walk-on, turning down chances to play at Northwest Missouri State or Wisconsin-Platteville.
“You don’t always grow up dreaming of playing at the Division II level,” Baer explained.
When Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffery offered him a chance to join the team without a scholarship, Baer leapt at it, the way he’s leapt to grab 547 rebounds in his career.
This year, Michael Baer has followed in his older brother’s footsteps. The two shared a room together growing up. They’re roommates again now for one final winter. Michael is also a walk-on. He’s also a confidant. The brothers enjoy talking about current events or whatever book they’re reading.
“I think we fight less than most brothers fight,” Michael Baer said.
“We see each other every day. Wake up, talk to each other. Before we go to bed say, ‘Good night, love you.’ It’s just like old times.”
Michael, three years younger, will be in uniform alongside Nicholas on Saturday. They never got to play together in high school. They both may or may not end up crying when Nicholas receives his framed No. 51 jersey from McCaffery.
A historic career that will end in NCAA Tournament
Baer’s Hawkeye playing career is coming full circle as well. As a redshirt freshman, he worked his way onto the court, averaging 4.8 points for a team that reached the NCAA Tournament. His career will conclude in that event as well. And that’s all that matters to him right now.
“I want to leave this program on that same note, at a very high level,” Baer said, pausing when asked to assess what his Hawkeye legacy will be.
“Part of that’s going to be however this season ends,” he finally said.
That may be. But most of it Baer has already carved out, one drop of sweat at a time. He was a back-to-the-basket center at Bettendorf at a skinny 6-foot-7. He knew he wouldn’t be playing the “5” at the Big Ten Conference level. So he worked on his outside shooting, running the floor, dribbling in space, defending at the 3-point line.
By his sophomore season, Baer was on scholarship. He was named the top sixth man in the Big Ten for that one.
By his senior season, now at 210 pounds, he was able to claim Hawkeye history: The only player ever to have at least 725 points, 500 rebounds, 100 blocked shots, 100 steals and 100 3-pointers.
Observers often point to Baer as a “glue guy” or speak of his intangibles. But those are some pretty impressive tangibles. Baer bristles at the typical descriptions of him, but also understands.
“A lot of times I do a lot of things that help us win that don’t show up in the box score,” the always-cheerful Baer said. “But I do some things that do show up in the box score, too. So that’s good.”
McCaffery compared Baer to some of the best Hawkeyes he’s coached. Guys like Aaron White, Jarrod Uthoff and Devyn Marble.
“When you talk about culture, that's what he is. We have an expectation of how you're going to work, how you're going to prepare, how you're going to conduct yourself off the floor, what kind of student are you going to be? There's no better representative of our program,” McCaffery said.
“(Other players) just sort of follow the lead of those guys and set a standard of what's expected when you go through a scouting report and you go on the road, and you're trying to compete and stay together in a difficult environment. And he's always been able to perform well under pressure.”
Baer already has a degree in communication studies. He’s working on a masters in sports and recreation management. But he will put that on hold to pursue a pro basketball career overseas.
First, there’s the game Saturday, and the rest of his final Iowa season.
“I’m very excited,” Baer said of his Senior Day.
“Still need to win against Rutgers, though. That’s the most important thing.”