By RICK BROWN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — The NCAA Tournament isn’t something that University of Iowa men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery discusses with his team.
“I don’t do anything other than prepare for the next game and when it comes to having an NCAA resume, you’ll either have one or you won’t.”
The Hawkeyes are in good shape with March Madness right around the corner. No. 19 Iowa is 20-6 overall and 9-6 in Big Ten play heading into Friday’s game with Indiana (13-13, 4-11) at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
McCaffery might not discuss the NCAAs with his team, but that doesn’t mean his players aren’t thinking about it.
“I think about it all the time,” said senior forward Nicholas Baer, the only player on the roster with NCAA experience. “I pride myself in leaving a place as good as I found it. When I came here, we were making the NCAA Tournament. I want to leave in that same regard. But we have a lot of work to do. We can’t overlook anything. We’ve got a really tough team in Indiana coming in here and we have to be ready for them.”
Baer was a redshirt freshman in 2015-16 when the Hawkeyes beat Temple in overtime and lost to eventual national champion Villanova. Baer logged a total of 34 minutes in those two games as Iowa played in the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season.
Baer has played a pivotal role in Iowa’s one-season reversal of fortune this season. He’s averaging 6.5 points and 4.6 rebounds in his sixth man role and also has a team-high 29 steals. The forward from Bettendorf, Iowa, is the only player in program history to total 725 points, 500 rebounds, 100 blocked shots, 100 steals and 100 3-pointers.
Coming off a 14-19 season in 2017-18, the team’s lone senior is winding down his career on an uptick.
“I think a big part of it is the maturity we have,” Baer said. “Understanding we have a lot of guys playing who are juniors. Everybody has more experience under their belt. That, more emotional maturity, and the understanding not to get too high or too low.”
That experience, and contributions from freshmen guards Joe Wieskamp and Connor McCaffery, has put Iowa in a good position for the postseason.
“You’re bound to get better when the bulk of your team is that much older,” coach McCaffery said. “We pretty much had everybody back that was a contributing member of the team and then you add some other good players. Joe has been tremendous, Connor has been great, so that gave us the depth in the backcourt we didn’t have. So there’s been a lot of factors involved and it’s been fun to watch.”
Tyler Cook, the Hawkeyes’ leading scorer and rebounder, said the NCAA Tournament is not his focus.
“I know that we’ll be in barring some ridiculous circumstances,” Cook said.
Coming off a tough season, Cook sensed something was different about this team when they had their first workout in June. That was shortly after Cook pulled his name from the NBA Draft to return for his junior season.
“Since then we’ve been very confident,” Cook said.
Iowa won at Indiana, 77-72, on Feb. 7 and it trying for a regular-season sweep for the first time since 2010-11. The Hoosiers have lost 11 of their last 12 games. But Indiana did win at Michigan State, 79-75, on Feb. 2, and is coming off a 48-46 loss to No. 13 Purdue at home Tuesday.
“The thing that impresses me about them is they continue to fight,” McCaffery said. “They really are competing, and I think that’s what you look for. They’ve lost some games maybe they thought they were going to win, but they keep coming.”
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