IOWA CITY, Ia. — Last season, Nicholas Baer was the lone senior pushing the Iowa men’s basketball team all the way to March 24.
That may be Ryan Kriener’s job this winter. As improbable as it would have seemed three years ago, when Kriener arrived as part of a promising class of five rookies, the center from Spirit Lake figures he'll be the last of those seniors standing when the 2019-20 season tips off Nov. 6.
Tyler Cook has turned pro. Maishe Dailey transferred. Cordell Pemsl sat out last year after knee surgery. Jordan Bohannon may do the same this year after a hip operation.
“I’ve got to take a step up,” Kriener said, acknowledging that he’s given a great deal of thought to his senior status.
Watching Baer last year was a big benefit. Baer led despite not being a starter. He led despite being quiet by nature. He led Iowa to a 23-12 mark and a hard-fought second-round exit in the NCAA Tournament.
“He was a really big voice in the locker room,” Kriener said. “If we were having a bad practice, he’d always stop the practice, get everyone going.”
No one is ready to say yet that Bohannon, Iowa’s tireless and fearless point guard, is going to miss the entire season. But Bohannon has said that he wants to be completely healthy for the duration of his final year with the Hawkeyes, not just for the second half of it.
Kriener joked with his closest friend on the team that if Bohannon is going to redshirt they need to do it together.
“I sent him some of his favorite snacks and a bell when he did surgery so whenever he was needing help he could ring the bell and his mom would come help him,” Kriener said of Bohannon. “She really appreciated that.”
Iowa is bringing in graduate transfer Bakari Evelyn from Valparaiso to potentially replace Bohannon as a starting point guard. But he's not getting to campus next month, so it's unrealistic to expect him to become an instant leader.
While Bohannon recuperated, Kriener headed to Greece with the USA East Coast All-Star team. They played three games and Kriener learned to handle the faster pace and fluid ball movement of the European game, plus the physicality under the basket when fighting for rebounds. Those are lessons he hopes serve him well this winter.
Kriener averaged 5.7 points and 3 rebounds for Iowa while playing in all 35 games a year ago. He led the Hawkeyes with 53.9% shooting accuracy.
Still, the rangy 6-foot-9 Kriener wants to improve his accuracy from the 3-point arc (he made 9-of-27 a year ago) and develop one more low-post move to go along with his nifty hook shot.
He’ll be rejoined by Pemsl, a pair of old-school, take-no-prisoners front-court players who feed off the attitude of the other.
“He’s a guy that I felt like is one of those players who doesn’t want to take anything from anybody and is willing to sacrifice, really, his body for the team,” Pemsl said of Kriener. “And I consider myself a guy that is able to go out there and do the same thing. So to play side by side and to motivate each other and bring that energy just sparks energy in the rest of the team. So I’m excited to be playing with him again.”
Kriener and Pemsl will be joined by junior center Luka Garza and redshirt sophomore forward Jack Nunge to give the Hawkeyes a veteran presence up front with plenty of upside. Suddenly, with Bohannon’s injury and the transfers of Isaiah Moss and Dailey, it is the post players who will provide the most stability for Iowa, at least early on.
"Our old guys in the front court are going to have to lead by example," Kriener said.
Pemsl took it one step further.
“I think it’s going to be a huge matchup problem against most teams,” he said of Iowa’s front-court quartet. “We’ve got bigs who can stretch the floor, bigs who are efficient in the low post, bigs that can take it off the dribble and pass the ball as well and create for teammates.”
And Kriener may be the biggest big, just because of the experience he can draw on and the message he’ll need to send his teammates in order to help the Hawkeyes get back to the NCAA Tournament.
Mark Emmert covers University of Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and Iowa City Press-Citizen.