Schwartz: Remembering Nicholas Baer While He’s Still Here

February 7, 2019

Written by David Schwartz

It was clear from Nicholas Baer’s first minutes in a Hawkeye uniform that he belonged in Iowa City, on scholarship, as a regular in Iowa’s rotation. He played more intuitively than most, smarter than most, quicker than most, more relaxed than most.

Even when his inexperience got the best of him, we could see it: Baer, born in Iowa City, raised in the Quad Cities, needed to be on that court. Fran McCaffery knew it. Baer was a redshirt freshman on McCaffery’s best team, a roster with names like Uthoff and Jok, Gesell and Clemmons and Woodbury, and despite having neither a scholarship nor enough weight on his 6-foot-7 frame, Baer scratched out 14 minutes a game.

Somewhere between 11-15 games remain in Baer’s Hawkeye career, which continues tonight when the Hawkeyes play at Indiana at 8 p.m. He earned a scholarship a few years back, but it feels like he just got here. Now he’s leaving, a vicious reminder that we need to appreciate the good ones while they’re here because they won’t be around for long. Since the fall of 2015, Baer, whether the Hawkeyes are in a tight game or a blowout, has been the steady Hawkeye, never letting the moment get the best of him. He’s going to be sorely missed next season.

McCaffery must have known who and what he had in Baer during the player’s redshirt season. We’ve seen videos of walk-ons eventually earning a scholarship. First they don’t see the court, then they get a few minutes here and there, then they become indispensable, then they get the scholarship.

Yet we know that McCaffery held Baer in high regard early because Baer played 13 minutes his first game as a redshirt freshman, Nov. 13, 2015 against Gardner-Webb.

McCaffery didn’t necessarily need Baer. Players of a similar size and/or skill range filled Iowa’s roster: Ahmad Wagner, who stood as tall as Baer but must have outweighed him by 50 pounds, and Dom Uhl, who was an inch taller than Baer and who at that time had a reputation as a decent ball handler.

If McCaffery hadn’t played Baer at all, no one outside of Baer’s family would have minded. But he did play him, and in those 13 minutes Baer played a Baer game: 2-for-2 from three-point range, a steal, and an assist. It was the kind of game he would become known for. Nine times that season he’d score between 6-8 points. He had a few clunkers, but he also scored 11 against Iowa’s boggart, Michigan State, and 15 in an NCAA Tournament loss to eventual NCAA champion Villanova.

Check out this consistency. As a freshman Baer averaged 13.2 points per 40 minutes; 12.6 per 40 as a sophomore; 9.8 as a junior after he broke a bone in his finger early in the season; and to this point during his senior season, 13.9 per 40 minutes.

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And then there’s the defense. One-hundred-ten blocks and counting. One-hundred-twenty-six steals and counting.

Steady. Always steady.

This has been a challenging column to write. If you’re reading this, you likely know who Nicholas Baer is and what he can do. You’ve seen the numbers. A newsroom I used to work in hung a banner that read, “Tell us something we don’t know.”

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This column’s purpose isn’t to bring Nicholas Baer to your attention. It’s to remind us to slow down and appreciate what we’ve been allowed to witness.

Six weeks.

That’s how much time we have left to watch Baer do what he does well. Six weeks left to see him check into a game, pull down a well-timed offensive rebound or block a shot on the perimeter.

Six weeks from now, he’ll be a YouTube video, a resident of the past tense as we do what sports fans do – turn our attention to What’s Next.

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Baer deserves our attention as his Iowa career concludes, and as fans we deserve the right to watch him, to live in the Now instead of the Next.

There haven’t been a lot of players in Iowa history who play like Baer, whose defense and hustle and just enough offense make opposing coaches swear at their own players’ lesser efforts. Kenyon Murray comes to mind.

So, yeah. Another college basketball season is nearing its ends. Another batch of Hawkeyes is leaving. This batch just happens to include Nicholas Baer, an important, unique player destined to leave us all saying, “Damn, he was good, wasn’t he?”

* Talk with David Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.

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