Hawkeyes could use a jolt from Baer against TCU

Mark Emmert

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s motor has been idle during postseason play.

Throughout the basketball season, Nicholas Baer was the player most likely to re-energize the Hawkeyes when they hit a lull. The sophomore forward earned his title as the Big Ten Conference’s sixth man of the year by doing so many things so well, putting up numbers not seen in the league for a quarter-century.

Baer is the only Division I player this year to score 240 points, with 40 3-pointers, 45 steals and 40 blocked shots.

Nicholas Baer has brought tremendous energy off the bench for Iowa all season. He's been unusually quiet the past two games, and the Hawkeyes would love to see the Baer of old re-emerge Sunday against TCU.

But he’s had his quietest back-to-back games of the winter in the postseason, scoring just five points with a lone rebound in a loss to Indiana in the Big Ten tournament and a win against South Dakota in the National Invitation Tournament.

Iowa (19-14) would love to see the Baer of old in the second round of the NIT, when it hosts TCU at 4 p.m. Sunday (ESPN2). The Horned Frogs (20-15) have their own version of Baer in junior Kenrich Williams, who averages 10.8 points and a team-leading 9.4 rebounds, while also providing 77 assists, 47 steals and 23 blocked shots.

“He has tremendous guard skills,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of the 6-foot-7 Williams. “He goes off the dribble. He makes 3s. I’ve really been impressed with him.”

Baer, also 6-7, closed the regular season with the best four-game stretch of his career. He averaged 13.8 points while making 13 of 19 3-pointers. He also leads the Hawkeyes in rebounding, at 5.7 per game.

So it was unusual to see his lack of production the past two games. Baer and McCaffery both said Friday that it was early foul trouble that hindered him in Wednesday’s 87-75 victory over South Dakota. Baer played just 3 first-half minutes after getting two fouls.

“Any time you’ve got to sit the whole first half, that’s going to throw you off maybe a little bit. I can’t put myself in that position where I get two fouls,” Baer said.

“I felt good. I thought I was making some better plays there down the stretch.”

The level-headed Baer also said he doesn’t feel pressure to put up a bigger stat line against TCU.

“I think it’s just another game I have to perform, another game I have to play well,” he said.

The fourth-seeded Horned Frogs lost seven consecutive games to close the Big 12 Conference regular season. Then they rebounded to whip Oklahoma and upset Kansas in the league tournament. Williams led the way with 18 points and eight rebounds in that eye-opening victory over the Jayhawks.

TCU will provide a stark contrast to South Dakota for the Hawkeyes, the top seed that's just two home victories away from a trip to Madison Square Garden for the NIT semifinals. The Coyotes were undersized, allowing Iowa’s post players to operate around the basket without fear of their shots getting blocked.

The Horned Frogs, with no seniors in the starting lineup, are averaging 74 points per game behind a pair of guards who like to push the pace. Alex Robinson (11.2 points and 5.6 assists per game) and Jaylen Fisher (9.9 and 4.0) are a “throwback backcourt,” McCaffery said, with either one able to initiate the offense or score themselves, depending on the situation.

TCU also features 6-11 center Vlad Brodziansky, its leading scorer at 13.5 points per game despite averaging only 24 minutes played. He also has blocked 79 shots. Backing him up is another 6-11 obstacle, Karviar Shepherd.

This is a team with Big Ten size and a Big 12 mentality.

“The Big 12, I feel like they’re all about scoring, where the Big Ten is all about being physical on defense,” Iowa guard Peter Jok summarized.

Jok, Iowa’s leading scorer at 19.8 points per game, is expecting to see his usual array of double-teams. But shots should be available for him against a team that allows opponents to make 36 percent of their 3-pointers.

The bigger adjustment for Iowa will be inside. Freshman forward Tyler Cook is coming off an 18-point, eight-rebound game in which he made all eight of his field-goal attempts. He knows he may have to move a little farther from the basket to find success against TCU. And he’s ready.

“I’m pretty comfortable everywhere now,” Cook said.

“I’ve always had really good ball skills. I’ve always worked on not being just a post guy. And I think I’ve only gotten better at that this year.”