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Iowa center Ryan Kriener says being healthy has been a big advantage for him this season. Why else is he playing well? Listen in: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Ryan Kriener heard something unexpected from an opposing Big Ten Conference basketball coach Wednesday.

Iowa’s junior backup center had canned a pair of 3-pointers in a game for the first time in his career. The next time Kriener had the ball, Penn State’s Pat Chambers shouted to his players: “Run him off the line!”

Kriener was happy to oblige, faking a shot and driving to the basket. He finished with 15 points and a career-high five assists.

The most significant development was that the No. 24 Hawkeyes won 89-82, improving their record to 15-3 and 4-3 in league play.

Second on the list? Kriener has made his way into opposing teams’ scouting reports. At long last.

“Not a lot of big guys have an assortment of post moves and can step out on the floor and make 3s, and he can do that,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of Kriener. “And he's very confident in his shooting ability, whether it be from 3-point range or whether it's 17 feet, high post.”

Kriener has been Iowa’s best shooter in its four-game winning streak, making 59 percent of his field goals, including 4-of-6 from the 3-point arc. He was 3-for-15 from that distance in his first two seasons.

It’s a remarkable transformation that Kriener will look to carry into Iowa’s noon Sunday matchup against Illinois (5-12, 1-5) at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The game will be seen on BTN.

Kriener is a 6-foot-9 native of Spirit Lake who has the longest wingspan on the Iowa team at 7-3. He has said repeatedly that he was recruited because of the ability he showed on the AAU circuit to shoot from long-distance.

McCaffery, when asked about that Friday, seemed puzzled.

“He proved to me that he was a really good basketball player. Sometimes you look at a big guy: He's a banger, he's a shot-blocker, he's a runner,” McCaffery said. “For us to offer him a scholarship, I had to be sold on his overall game. And we were.”

Kriener got to Iowa at the same time as Tyler Cook and Cordell Pemsl. Those two got the bulk of the minutes in the low post two seasons ago. Kriener averaged 3.1 points and 2.2 assists as a freshman.

Kriener’s sophomore season was derailed by a pair of concussions. He said he tried to return too soon from the first one. The second kept him out three weeks and his memory of that time is still foggy, Kriener said.

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Iowa coach Fran McCaffery on the impact Luka Garza and Ryan Kriener are having during his team's four-game winning streak Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

He was finally fully healthy for the last four games of the season, putting up 15 points at Minnesota and 14 in a Big Ten Tournament defeat by Michigan. Then Kriener spent the summer working on getting stronger, quicker laterally and becoming a better ball-handler.

Those are the traits that he’s shown in the past five games. He’s scored 10 or more points in four of them. He blocked three shots in a win over Nebraska. His five assists Wednesday included a beautiful bounce pass to fellow center Garza, a play Kriener improvised.

He has the attention of the Big Ten now.

“The first time you get a post catch or something, you’re aware of it. You can hear the other team’s coach yelling their scouting report, how they’re going to play you,” Kriener said of suddenly being a marked man.

“It makes the game a little different puzzle.”

Kriener started two games while Garza battled an ankle injury. He is coming off the bench again now, but still picking up key minutes. Cook is Iowa’s best low-post option when healthy, but he will be a game-time decision Sunday with his own ankle sprain.

That’s what has made Kriener’s contributions so valuable.

“He was really good in June, July, all summer long. So you could tell that he was going to be a major factor,” McCaffery said of Kriener, who is averaging 5.9 points and 2.9 rebounds.

“He’s a top performer in practice always,” Garza echoed. “Seeing him come out with the same confidence. He’s not hesitating. He’s not being antsy. Those are some of the issues he’s dealt with in the past in games.”

Kriener was asked how he would describe his game and came back with a single word: “Competitor.”

“Every game you’re going to be asked to do a little something different,” he expanded. “I don’t care what I’m asked to do, I’m just going to do whatever it takes to win.”

Shooting. Passing. Blocking shots. Kriener is doing it all these days for the Hawkeyes.

He’s not a secret anymore.

Follow the Register on Facebook and Twitter for more sports news. Mark Emmert can be contacted at memmert@dmreg.com or on Twitter @MarkEmmert.

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