Baer, Pemsl embrace their roles leading Iowa's bench brigade

Mark Emmert
Iowa's Nicholas Baer (51) high-five's Cordell Pemsl during the Hawkeyes' game against Stetson at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Monday, Dec. 5, 2016.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Nicholas Baer and Cordell Pemsl usually get the summons from coach Fran McCaffery early in Iowa’s basketball games.

They might even head to the scorer’s table together, to sit and wait for a dead ball so they can take their turn playing forward for the Hawkeyes.

Pemsl, a freshman who started 14 games earlier in the season, admits that he feels the pressure to keep up with the frenzied pace set by Baer, a sophomore who has also made 10 starts.

Feb 5, 2017; Iowa City, IA, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes forward Nicholas Baer (51) shoots the ball over Nebraska Cornhuskers forward Jack McVeigh (10) during the first half at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

“Usually I’m checking in with him or around the same time as him,” Pemsl said. “To see a guy next to you working as hard as he does makes you want to work that hard, too.”

Baer and Pemsl are part of Iowa’s bench brigade these days, readjusting to spending the beginning of games sitting in a chair next to McCaffery. They will be there again at 1 p.m. Saturday when Iowa hosts Illinois (14-12, 4-9 Big Ten Conference) seeking revenge for last month’s 76-64 loss in Champaign.

Iowa forward Cordell Pemsl (35) drives to the basket past Rutgers center C.J. Gettys, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Would they rather be starting? Wouldn’t everybody?

Does their body language betray any resentment? Hardly.

“Sometimes when people aren’t in the starting lineup, there’s a sense of pride or ego bruised a little bit. I’ve never felt that,” Baer said. “It’s not personal to me. It’s just what’s best for the team. When the best thing for the team is for other people to start and for me to come off the bench, then I’m more than happy to do that if it means we’re going to win.”

In Iowa’s past five games, Baer and Pemsl are the team’s leading rebounders, with 26 apiece. Baer did start two of those when senior Peter Jok was letting a sore back heal. But for the most part, they are focused on leading the second unit now, both knowing that their role is as vital as any if Iowa (14-12, 6-7) is to snap a two-game losing streak Saturday. The game will be televised on BTN.

“There’s a lot of different combinations on this team that can work,” reasoned Pemsl, who averages 9.1 points and 5 rebounds. “I honestly don’t even know if we’ve found that perfect rotation yet. I think, regardless, coach knows that he can trust me to be in the game, whether it’s off the bench or in the starting lineup. So that doesn’t really bother me much.

“I’m still going to do the things that I was doing in the starting lineup. I’m just not doing it at the tipoff of every game. I’m doing it later.”

Baer and Pemsl both grew up on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River, Baer in Bettendorf and Pemsl in Dubuque. That’s where the similarities end.

Iowa forward Nicholas Baer blocks a shot by Purdue center Isaac Haas on Thursday.

Baer is a stringy 6-foot-7 former walk-on whose game is built on versatility and force of will. He can play on the wing or in the post. He is one of only two Division I players this season to have at least 170 points, 35 blocked shots, 35 steals and 25 3-pointers (Iowa State’s Deonte Burton is the other).

What he can’t do is log heavy minutes. He simply can't throttle down from the high-octane pace he plays at. McCaffery has said Baer is the one player on his team whose exhaustion becomes evident. Still, he is fourth on the team in minutes per game at 23.5.

“You sort of want him on the floor all the time, but he just gets tired because he goes so hard, and that's what you love about him,” McCaffery said. “I've also asked him to assume a bigger role in terms of leadership, which he's done.”

Baer, who is on scholarship now in his third season as a Hawkeye, said that has come naturally to him.

“Just trying to help these young guys and influence them,” he said of a team that includes six freshmen. “If I didn’t get a scholarship, then I think I’d still try to be in the same role that I am now. Walk-on vs. scholarship, I think leaders are leaders.”

Iowa's Cordell Pemsl celebrates a basket during the Hawkeyes' game against Iowa State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016.

Pemsl is a 6-foot-8 sturdy block of an athlete. He is most comfortable in the low post, where he can use his girth and guile to befuddle opponents who aren’t expecting such nimbleness.

Pemsl played only 39 out of 90 minutes last week when Iowa lost twice on the road, once in double overtime. But he produced 19 points and 13 rebounds in that time.

“I’m starting to see things more frequently and at a faster pace. I have a better feel for the game,” Pemsl said of his freshman evolution.

“It’s good to know for guys like Tyler (Cook) and Jordan (Bohannon) that they can count on someone to come in for them when they’re tired and produce offensively and defensively.”

Baer, who came off the bench throughout last season, said that selflessness was ingrained in him early on.

“It’s what I learned from Bettendorf, back in my first basketball program, just understanding that it’s more about the team and less about the individual,” he said. “And through that you can achieve greater goals.”