Ryan Kriener has been a Hawkeye through thick and thin, and he's had a ball doing it
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The first word Ryan Kriener ever spoke was “ball.”
On his first birthday, Kriener’s uncle gave him a bag full of them.
A pattern was set in motion.
Kriener grew to be 6-foot-10. He never grew out of his love for basketball.
His family had a boat when he was growing up. There was a Tigerhawk logo on the side of it. There was never a question of where Kriener would play the sport he loved once he was old enough for college.
On Tuesday night, he will be honored before No. 18 Iowa (20-9, 11-7 Big Ten Conference) hosts Purdue (15-14, 8-10) at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. and the game can be seen on the Big Ten Network.
Not that any friends or relatives of Kriener will be viewing on TV. There is a bus full of 56 people making the trip down to see him play his final Hawkeye home game in person.
“It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of heart,” Kriener said of getting to play four seasons for his favorite team. “I love it. I’ve loved every moment here.”
Three friends become Hawkeyes together
Kriener grew up in Spirit Lake and played in his first organized basketball game as a first-grader. His mother, Nancy, said he was recruited by a team of second-graders in search of someone tall.
It was an inauspicious debut. Kriener’s team had the basketball, but he chose to guard one of his own teammates.
“It was the cutest thing,” Nancy Kriener said.
“We were just laughing about that the other day. I said, ‘the last games (against Minnesota and Ohio State), you’ve pretty much held each team’s best big man 10 points under their average.’ He’s really come a long way.”
As a high school freshman, Kriener joined a Martin Brothers AAU team coached by Hank Huddleson. Jordan Bohannon and Cordell Pemsl were also on that squad, based out of Parkersburg.
The three bonded. They talked about maybe playing together again as Hawkeyes. And that’s exactly what happened.
Pemsl, a forward from Dubuque, was the first to accept a scholarship from Iowa coach Fran McCaffery.
Kriener’s junior year on the AAU circuit began with him wearing a mask to cover his broken nose. It ended with 23 colleges vying for his services. Kriener played very well in a national AAU tournament in Louisville, Huddleson recalled. And scouts took notice.
“As a sophomore, he needed a lot of room to work,” Huddleson said. “I think as it went on he got much better playing through contact and in traffic.”
Kriener took a visit to Nebraska, but was really waiting for McCaffery to offer a scholarship. When he did, Kriener pounced.
He told Bohannon: “You’re up next.”
Bohannon had become Kriener’s best friend, although it hadn’t been an immediate bond.
“At first, I thought he was weird,” Bohannon said. “I’m sure he thought the same of me.”
Bohannon, a point guard from Marion, got his Iowa scholarship too. He has been roommates with Kriener for four years.
“We kind of knew we’d end up together somewhere,” Bohannon said.
“All he cares about is winning. He doesn’t really care about personal accolades. All he was focused on was taking Iowa to another level.”
Two years of waiting, two years of winning
In his first two years, Kriener mainly contributed in practices, where he was known for setting such aggressive screens that Bohannon would occasionally get mad at him. Or insist that they be on the same squad.
Kriener averaged 3.1 points as a freshman and 3.6 as a sophomore, a season interrupted by two concussions.
There was speculation Kriener might transfer in order to get more playing time. He said he did hear from coaches who had recruited him in the past, with promises that he could be a focal point of their offenses.
“It’s definitely tempting when things don’t really go your way,” Kriener said.
“This is home. This is what I’ve always wanted to do. This is kind of my dream. I don’t believe in quitting on your dreams. I don’t believe in giving up.”
Nancy Kriener said the family never focused on Ryan’s playing time.
“For me, that just makes you hungrier. That makes you work more,” she said.
Her son stayed at Iowa.
As a junior, Kriener saw more time on the court, averaging 5.7 points and 3.0 rebounds. He had 15 points and 10 rebounds in a home win over Michigan. That showed he could be the player Bohannon saw in practice all those years.
“He can come off the bench and score. He can come off the bench and lead. He can come off the bench and bring toughness. And he can come off the bench and be a defender,” McCaffery said Monday when asked about Kriener's contributions.
Bohannon, Pemsl and Kriener arrived at Iowa along with Tyler Cook and Maishe Dailey as a large recruiting class with high hopes. They reached the NCAA Tournament together last March.
But only Kriener will be going through Senior Night ceremonies Tuesday. Cook is playing professionally. Dailey has transferred. Pemsl sat out last season after knee surgery. Bohannon is missing this year after having his hip repaired.
That has been difficult for the friends.
“I know the crowd’s going to give him a big standing ‘O’ because he’s meant a lot to this program over the last four years,” Pemsl said.
“He’s never put his head down and became a bad teammate. All he does is grind and work his butt off."
Bohannon and Kriener both envisioned sharing the spotlight Tuesday, concluding what they started together.
“He gets emotional over it,” Bohannon said. “I do, too. We wanted to go out the same way, especially with the kind of year we’re having.
“But he’s a lifelong friend that basketball kind of created.”
Kriener is averaging 7.9 points and 4.2 rebounds this season. He has a case for being named the Big Ten’s top sixth man, even though he’s also started six games when CJ Fredrick has been injured.
He has been invaluable.
This has been Nancy Kriener’s favorite season. She’ll be sorry to see it come to an end.
“The first three years, I was a nervous watcher. Because you just want your child to play well. And when they have a poor game, the social media aspect of that is just heartbreaking. That kind of weighed on me. This year, I’ve kind of put that behind me and know that it doesn’t matter and it’s just a small percentage of people,” she said.
“I’m sure I’ll be very emotional (Tuesday). You just have a lot of pride as a parent because you know how much work has gone into being where he is.”
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.
No one covers the Hawkeyes like the Register. Subscribe today at Des Moines Register.com/Deal to make sure you never miss a moment.