Iowa junior Nicholas Baer had 11 points and 14 rebounds against Drake on Saturday. Chad Leistikow/The Register
When Nicholas Baer gets tired on the basketball court, everyone can see it.
The shoulders slump. His sprint up the floor becomes a shuffle. He’s spent.
“We all know. If it gets around the 17:45 to 16:30 mark, we’re all like, ‘Baer needs one.’ He kind of gets his little hunch-back (run),” teammate Cordell Pemsl said with a needling smile, before adding: “He’s going to give you 100 percent as long as he’s in the game.”
Though it brings Baer to exhaustion, that kind of all-out effort is something that Hawkeye fans and coach Fran McCaffery love to see.
And it’s something that was absent in the first part of Iowa’s season, when Baer missed six games with a broken finger.
Baer reminded us of that Saturday. The former walk-on from Bettendorf again showed he owns the Hy-Vee Classic, with his versatile and inspiring effort fueling Iowa’s much-needed, 90-64 rout of Drake at Wells Fargo Arena.
It was Iowa’s best performance of what’s been a mostly underwhelming 6-6 season to date.
“He was the difference in our team completely today,” McCaffery said. “There’s no question about it.”
Baer dismissed the importance of his impact Saturday, although the stat sheet would argue with him. His line: 11 points, a career-high 14 rebounds, five assists and a career-high five steals in 23 energizing minutes.
“This season, we’ve had some struggles. And that’s no secret,” Baer said. “Instead of viewing it from a personal standpoint, (I’m) viewing it collectively: how we were able to really execute our gameplan today. I think this was the first example of that.”
One of the reasons Iowa clicked, though, was because of their junior spark plug.
“No matter which Baer we get,” teammate Tyler Cook said, “night in and night, out he’s always a motivation for us.”
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery reacts to a 90-64 win vs. Drake. Chad Leistikow/The Register
Baer was a Bulldog nuisance at the top of Iowa’s press. When he wasn’t poking away steals, he was at least disrupting passing lanes on the way to 19 Drake turnovers.
He owned the offensive glass — including when he missed his own lay-ups — to help Iowa own a 41-24 rebounding advantage.
“I’d like to publicly apologize to Jordan Bohannon,” Baer said with a smile. “He gave me an assist, right on a platter, and I missed it.”
Maybe we’ve all overlooked the importance that Baer’s absence played during the Hawkeyes’ early-season struggles.
When the news broke just before the season that he’d miss 3-4 weeks with the broken pinkie on his non-shooting hand, there was some concern, but also an assumption that with so much front-court depth, Iowa would be fine.
Well, it turned out the Hawkeyes needed some energy. They were flat and uninspiring in a pair of losses in the Cayman Islands Classic, with Baer wearing dress clothes on the sidelines.
After he returned, the struggles continued — four straight losses, as Baer tried to find the game that made him the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year last winter.
In Baer's first five games back, his season highs were eight points, seven rebounds, two assists and one steal.
Baer easily topped them all Saturday.
Safe to say he's back?
“It’s just a pinkie finger, but it takes me out for a few weeks,” Baer said. “Just getting back into a good rhythm, getting my energy back, my conditioning back. Those are things I was happy with (Saturday).”
Maybe Baer just needed to get back on the Wells Fargo Arena floor to find his groove.
It was two years ago in this one-day spectacle in downtown Des Moines that he had his ultimate breakout game. Then a walk-on when star Jarrod Uthoff got into foul trouble, Baer came off the bench to post a surprising line of 13 points, seven rebounds and six blocked shots against Drake.
A year ago here against Northern Iowa, he posted his first career double-double: 11 points, 11 rebounds.
For his three-game Hy-Vee Classic career, Baer's line is 35 points, 32 rebounds, nine assists, nine blocks and seven steals.
But beyond the stats, Baer’s return to form — hopefully for good, for Iowa — provides a much-needed leadership boost for a team that's been trying to find its way.
That element of Baer’s game was obvious Saturday, as he was smiling and fist-pumping and making others around him better throughout the feel-good win.
“You lose a few, you get a little sideways, especially when you have a young team,” McCaffery said. “You need those veteran guys to step up and do what they do, and then back it up with their performance. And that’s what (Baer) did.”
Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon got animated after an “and-one” bucket against Drake. Chad Leistikow/The Register
Maybe the best thing Baer reminded us Saturday: This season isn’t over.
The Hawkeyes entered with an RPI of 237. That’s bad, 64 spots worse than any other Big Ten team.
But when Baer is energizing and Cook is dunking and Jordan Bohannon is doing his thing, this team showed it can still be good — like many predicted they would be.
“He’s still been trying to get his feet under him after that injury,” said Bohannon, who had a solid line of his own with 15 points and seven assists. “He’s starting to get back to normal. He’s a huge part of what we’re trying to do (this) season.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.