By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa sophomore forward Nicholas Baer didn’t mean to hog the spotlight on Senior Day, but he just couldn’t help himself.
There was an important game to be played on Sunday and the 6-foot-7 Baer only knows how to compete one way, which is to hustle to the point of exhaustion.
Senior Peter Jok went out in style by leading five Iowa players in double figures with 21 points as the surging Hawkeyes defeated Penn State 90-79 before a sellout crowd of 15,400 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
But it was Baer who stole the spotlight by stuffing the stat sheet as he so often does with 20 points, 10 rebounds, two assists, two steals and too many hustle plays to count. It was Baer's first double-double as a Hawkeye.
“Baer is the heart of this team,” Jok said after Sunday’s victory, which improved Iowa’s record to 18-13 overall and 10-8 in conference play heading into next week’s Big Ten Tournament in Washington D.C.
Iowa coach Fran McCaffery agreed with Jok’s assessment of Baer, who come to Iowa as a walk-on from Bettendorf.
But McCaffery took it one step further.
“I mean he’s one of the best players in the league, without question,” McCaffery said of Baer. “He just keeps getting better. He impacts the game when we put him in. He settles everybody down. He helps you on the glass, helps you defensively, helps you against the press, from three-point range, offensive rebound put-backs, deflections.
“He’s everywhere and he’s really smart.”
McCaffery was pleased that Jok had such high praise for Baer.
“It’s a very mature thing for Pete to say,” McCaffery said.
And it’s the right thing for Jok to say because Baer is the heart of this Iowa team, and maybe its soul.
“That’s an honor for me, especially hearing that from Pete, a guy who has been here for four years and has worked tirelessly over his four years and has really improved,” Baer said. “He’s the leader of this team and that was evident today. He got two fouls early, but being able to come back and knock down all those shots he knocked down, that’s what we expect from Pete and he played to that standard all year.”
Jok certainly did his part in typical Jok fashion where at times in the second half on Sunday he seemed close to unstoppable on offense, scoring 20 points.
Jok only scored one point and played five minutes in the first half after picking up two early fouls.
Who would have thought that Iowa’s other senior – oft-injured forward Dale Jones – would have tripled Jok’s scoring output in the first half? But that’s what happened on Sunday.
McCaffery inserted Jones in the starting lineup for Senior Day and the move paid off immediately as Jones scored Iowa’s first points in the game with a 3-point basket less than a minute into the game.
That drew a huge ovation from the fans who still were energized from the pre-game ceremony to honor Iowa’s two seniors.
“That was an unbelievable feeling for me to see,” McCaffery said. “I just knew he was going to make one. I mean, he’s just too good a shooter.”
Jones hasn’t had many spotlight moments since transferring to Iowa from junior college before last season. He has had two serious knee injuries since entering college, with the first occurring in junior college and the second early last season as a Hawkeye.
Jones also injured his wrist this season, so rarely has the Waterloo native been healthy as a Hawkeye.
That’s why to contribute on Sunday meant so much to Jones.
“It felt good to be on the floor with the guys,” said Jones, who has only appeared in five games this season because of injuries. “Everybody knows what I’ve been through and stuff like that. So to get a three made in Carver-Hawkeye Arena was a great feeling.”
Jones showed that he hasn’t lost his confidence when asked if he thought his shot would go in.
“I think they’re all going in,” he said. “It’s just me. I have no conscious when I shoot. I think they’re all going in. But it felt good.”
Baer also has reason to think that all his shots are going in based on his recent play. Sunday marked the fourth consecutive game in which Baer has scored in double figures. He made all four of his 3-point attempts in Sunday’s game and has made 18 of his last 31 treys over six games.
“I’m very confident,” Baer said. “I’ve been shooting it well lately. With shooting, sometimes you’re hot, sometimes you’re cold.
“But I’ve really got to credit my teammates a lot for helping me.”
It’s hard to recall a time when Baer has accepted praise without sharing it was his teammates. He is the ultimate team player and is willing to do anything to help the team.
Baer plays to the point of exhaustion and then McCaffery takes him out to recharge. It’s amazing to watch because few players push themselves to the limit at all times.
McCaffery has a tendency to get carried away when praising his players after a win, but to call Baer one of the best players in the Big Ten might not be a reach.
Baer was clearly the best player on the court in Sunday’s game. He and sophomore freshman forward Cordell Pemsl combined to score 34 points and helped Iowa have a 42-14 advantage in bench points.
It is no coincidence that Baer and his team both are peaking at the same time.
Iowa has won four games in a row and will enter the conference tournament as the No. 7 seed and as one of the hottest teams in the Big Ten. Iowa will face Indiana on Thursday.
In barely two weeks, the Hawkeyes have gone from being a team that needed to keep winning just for a chance to make the National Invitation Tournament to a team clearly on the NCAA bubble.
Jok is trying to become one of few Iowa players to participate in the NCAA Tournament in four consecutive seasons.
There was reason to worry that Iowa’s season might be on the verge of collapse after Illinois defeated the Hawkeyes 70-66 on Feb. 18 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The loss came on the same day in which Iowa paid tribute to former Hawkeye guard Kenny Arnold by staging a White Out in order to raise money to help with Arnold’s expenses.
The energy and optimism was sucked out of the arena on that day. It was easy to assume that Iowa would unravel because two of McCaffery’s previous three teams fell apart down the stretch.
But the current team is different for lots of reasons, including that it might be McCaffery’s best perimeter shooting team.
Iowa made 12-of-21 3-point shots in Sunday’s game and has made at least nine treys in each of the past three games.
“We were sitting at 14-13 (after the Illinois loss), that’s a pretty clear message in itself,” Baer said when asked if the Illinois loss sent a message. “I think we do have a sense of urgency and understand that every game that we play is our biggest game.”
Baer has played with a sense of urgency since joining the team without a scholarship. His work ethic seems almost contagious.
Freshman forward Tyler Cook recorded a double-double on Sunday with 11 points and 10 rebounds. There were times when Cook seemed to want the ball more than his Penn State opponent did.
Maybe that was just part of the Nicholas Baer effect.
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