Iowa fifth-year senior Nicholas Baer reacts after playing the final game of his college basketball career. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The message was the same from every player in the Iowa locker room Sunday at Nationwide Arena — from the basketball team’s only senior on one side to its lone true freshman on the other.
“It hurts now, obviously,” rookie forward Joe Wieskamp said after his team’s near-historic rally fell short in an 83-77 overtime loss to Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. “But we realize that the guys in this locker room are going to get right back to work. We’ve got so much talent in here. It’s going to be a great offseason. I already know that.
“We’ll be back. I promise you that.”
The Hawkeyes finished 23-12 and reached the Big Dance for the first time in three years. They packed a season’s full of memories into their final game alone, storming back from a 25-point deficit to put a serious scare into second-seeded Tennessee. It was the closest an Iowa team has gotten to the Sweet 16 since coach Tom Davis’s final team got there in 1999.
Nicholas Baer, the team’s elder statesman and popular leader, was reflective after seeing his career end in a game that Hawkeye fans will talk about for years to come. He’s been around to observe every workout, film session and game of the entire career of this group of Hawkeyes. He’s charted their growth.
“You’re going to get a team with a lot of fight,” Baer predicted of the 2019-20 Hawkeyes. “This is a group that is going to be hungry. They’ve had a little taste of this NCAA Tournament. I expect to see these guys back here and hopefully in a happier locker room this time next year.”
It’s what you would expect a group of athletes to say after rising up to win nine more games than the previous winter. That was the biggest leap of any team in the Big Ten Conference.
But there was no mistaking the air of determined optimism from the Hawkeyes. They no longer have to answer for the 2017-18 team that finished 14-19, a subject that both drove them and irritated them all winter. They promised this year would be different. And it was.
“We had guys like Ryan Kriener staying and doing extra conditioning when we already practiced two hours before,” Iowa junior forward Tyler Cook said of the last offseason. “We’ve got guys in the gym at 1, 2 o’clock in the morning and we’re practicing the next day. They’ve got class at 8 a.m. This is just a special group of guys. And coming from where we came from these last two seasons and still have a chance to get to the Sweet 16, it’s incredible.
“And I just wish people could see everything that went into this.”
Iowa heads into another offseason with work to do and a few questions to answer. Cook’s future is chief among them. The team’s leading scorer (14.5) and rebounder (7.6) tested the NBA waters a year ago only to make a last-second decision to return. He’s certainly going to try that again. As is junior guard Isaiah Moss.
Sophomore center Luka Garza said he had not yet thought about it, but the feedback from pro scouts costs nothing to college players, so it’s possible he and even Wieskamp might want to take a look.
The Hawkeyes are set to get back three players who redshirted this season — junior forward Cordell Pemsl, sophomore forward Jack Nunge and freshman guard CJ Fredrick.
Coach Fran McCaffery, who will be heading into his 10th season, was already anticipating those “additions” to his roster.
Iowa signee Patrick McCaffery discusses a number of topics as he watches Hawkeye practice at the NCAA Tournament. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
“He’s playing the best basketball of his career. He’s been dominant in practice,” McCaffery said of the 6-foot-11, 250-pound Nunge. “CJ Fredrick is terrific. Gives us a quick, penetrating scoring guard who can play both spots.
“We’ve got size. We’ve got depth. We’ve got experience. That’s what you need in this league. We’ve also put together probably the toughest schedule we’ve ever played in the history of Iowa basketball next year. And that was by design.”
The Hawkeyes also have two four-star recruits on board in 6-8 forward Patrick McCaffery (Fran’s middle son) and 6-foot point guard Joe Touissant, who draws praise for his quickness and is expected to bring some New York City toughness to the roster.
Another question looming this spring and summer will be the nature of the Hawkeye workouts. Iowa players threw themselves into last season’s work with vigor, on the court and in the weight room. That showed up in an 11-0 non-conference record, the first perfect mark in 32 seasons. But there also was a regular season-ending four-game losing streak that knocked them from the national rankings and down to a 10 seed for the NCAA Tournament.
“This will make us evaluate what we’re doing,” assistant coach Sherman Dillard said after the Hawkeyes were flattened by Michigan in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. “Did we push it too hard during the offseason? It has been a long season. But you can always have hindsight. I’m pleased with where we are, not completely satisfied. There’s more to be done.”
Iowa certainly seemed refreshed once the NCAA Tournament rolled around. The Hawkeyes put together one of their best performances of the year to topple seventh-seeded Cincinnati 79-72 on Friday. They played out of their minds to push Tennessee to overtime.
Baer will leave a void beyond his 6.7 points and 4.6 rebounds. Hawkeye players went out of their way Sunday to talk about how much the one-time walk-on from Bettendorf has meant to them.
“I couldn’t get too many words out without crying,” Cook said when asked if he’d spoken to Baer yet in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s loss.
Garza said Baer will be gone but not forgotten.
“We’re going to use what he brought to this team as motivation and how he inspired us,” Garza said.
“We’ll push ourselves to the next level.”