IOWA CITY — For most of last season, Nicholas Baer made it easy for Fran McCaffery.
The former Bettendorf High School star frequently told reporters that he actually preferred not to be in the starting lineup, that he enjoyed coming off the bench so that he could provide a jolt of energy for the Iowa basketball team a few minutes into every game.
He’s not saying that anymore.
“I do pride myself in being able to come off the bench and provide some energy, but I would prefer to start,’’ Baer said at the Hawkeyes’ preseason media day last week. “We’ll see how the season pans out. We’ll see what lineups do well at the start of the game. More important is who is playing on the court at the end of the game.’’
As always, Baer said he will do whatever McCaffery asks him to do. He’ll play center or point guard if he has to although it’s doubtful either of those will be necessary. He would seem to fit perfectly into the starting lineup as the small forward although he also can play shooting guard or power forward.
It definitely presents a quandary for McCaffery.
On one hand, Baer is the vocal leader of the team, his most versatile player and clearly one of his five best players. He deserves to start.
On the other hand, Baer has a unique ability to come into a game cold and heat up everyone around him with his style of play.
Assistant coach Kirk Speraw likened him to John Havlicek, who performed the supersub role so well for the Boston Celtics championship teams of the 1960s. Baer did it well enough last season to be named the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year and McCaffery admits it’s difficult to give up using him that way.
“He earned that award for a reason,’’ McCaffery said. “He comes in the game and he impacts the game in every facet, and that's what you want from that guy … He can make threes, he can make plays off the dribble, he's not a mistake guy, he sticks his nose on the glass, he blocks shots, he gets every loose ball. And he knows our offense inside and out. He knows our defenses. He's a talker defensively. So he communicates well, and he has incredible respect in the locker room and on the floor, and especially at crunch time.’’
Baer actually put up better statistical numbers last season in the games he did not start than in the 10 in which he was in the opening lineup. He became the first NCAA Division I player in 25 years to record 250 points, 45 steals, 45 3-pointers and 40 blocked shots.
And, by all accounts, he’s still getting better.
Among other things, he has added a great deal of strength in the off-season and is up to 211 pounds. He was a slender 185 when he first arrived at Iowa in 2014.
“That’s been an improvement from years past,’’ Baer said. “And also just trying to make plays off the dribble and also trying to improve on 3-point shooting since that’s always going to be an important part of my game. More than anything, I’ve tried to keep doing the things I’ve always done whether it’s on the perimeter or the post, just trying to play with that energy that’s so infectious.’’
This season has been made all the more enjoyable by the fact that his younger brother, Michael, has joined the Iowa program as a team manager.
“It’s been fun having him on campus and getting to see him every day,’’ Nicholas said.
But he’d like to start. Not that there will be a bit of complaint from him if McCaffery decides to keep using the 6-foot-7 junior as his ace in the hole.
With the team’s first preseason exhibition game, against William Jewell, just a few days away, McCaffery apparently is still wrestling with the decision.
“You know, it might be something that we still do,’’ the coach said. “We still decide ‘OK, Nicholas, you're still going to be the sixth man because you are the best in the league at doing that, and that is what is best for our team.’’’