IOWA CITY, Iowa – Watching Iowa freshman forward Nicholas Baer chew up my college alma mater on Saturday had me thinking what a dull, dreary and unproductive world it would be without over-achievers.
What fun would it be if nobody defied the odds or if nobody accepted a challenge that was considered beyond his or her reach?
“I always envisioned myself as a player, not just as a practice player,” Baer said after scoring 13 points, grabbing seven rebounds and blocking six shots during Saturday’s 70-64 victory over Drake in the Big 4 Classic in Des Moines. “When you come here, you want a chance to compete on the floor.”
Every story in which somebody defies the odds starts with having a chance to do it.
Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery had to believe in the 6-foot-7 Baer enough to have him join the program as a walk-on, while Baer had to believe in himself enough to accept McCaffery’s offer. They both took a chance and now each is being rewarded for it.
It was the same when Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz offered a scholarship to an undersized and lightly recruited defensive back from Erie, Pa., named Bob Sanders. Ohio University was the only other school to offer Sanders a scholarship.
You probably know how the story goes. Sanders signed a letter of intent with Iowa in 2000 and then went on to become one of the greatest defensive backs in school history and a star in the NFL.
Ferentz also took what were considered big chances on many of his current players.
For example, senior running back Jordan Canzeri was likely headed to FCS member Villanova until Ferentz offered him a scholarship late in the recruiting process. Canzeri didn’t know anything about Iowa at the time, but the Troy, N.Y., native was quickly educated by his father, who knew the importance of getting a Big Ten offer.
The rest is history with one final chapter to write against Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Canzeri has defied the odds by becoming a force at running back. His career has been plagued by injuries, but the current team wouldn’t be 12-1 without Canzeri’s contributions.
Back to basketball where you could argue that McCaffery has rebuilt the Iowa program almost exclusively with players who have defied the odds. The two exceptions are senior center Adam Woodbury and senior guard Mike Gesell, both of whom were ranked among the top 100 players nationally as high school seniors in 2012.
Senior forward Jarrod Uthoff also was ranked among the top 150 players nationally by some recruiting services in 2011.
But that’s about it.
The rest of McCaffery’s players have been projects or recruits who mostly flew under the power five recruiting radar. That includes former guard Devyn Marble and former forward Aaron White. They both left Iowa as all-Big Ten players, but were overlooked by most of the power five schools in high school.
I’m not suggesting that Baer is on the verge of stardom based on one breakout performance against an average Drake squad.
But there are lots of college players who could compete in 100 games and still not have the kind of impact that Baer had on Saturday.
It’s inspiring when somebody like Baer defies the odds because it shows that anything is possible if you put your mind, heart, body and spirit to it.
McCaffery said after Saturday’s game that Baer asked to be redshirted last season as a true freshman in order to work on his game and his body. Baer knew that he wasn’t ready to compete at this level last season.
That was Baer’s mind protecting his body.
“He said, ‘coach, I’m not ready physically,”’ McCaffery said of Baer. “So as the season went on, he was so good in practice, I remember saying, `boy, I wish we didn’t redshirt him because he’d be playing. He’s good enough to play.’”
Baer used his redshirt season to expand his game on both ends of the floor and to get stronger. He played center for Bettendorf High School, but projected as a forward at Iowa. Baer had to improve his game away from the basket.
He worked at it one day and one practice at a time, determined to go where nobody thought his talent could take him, which was a starring role against Drake on Saturday.