The question from the reporter was about something completely different, but Luka Garza had something he needed to get off his chest.
“I know this doesn’t answer your question,’’ Garza said as he sat on a chair in Iowa’s locker room at Nationwide Arena on Sunday following the Hawkeyes’ season-ending 83-77 overtime loss to Tennessee.
“I love Nicholas Baer. He’s my favorite teammate of all time. That’s how you should play basketball. He was one of those guys that led us to this point. He typifies a leader, a hard worker. Just love him.’’
With tears welling up in his eyes, Garza spoke about how Baer, Iowa’s only senior, helped reverse the culture of the Hawkeyes’ program after a disheartening 14-19 season a year ago.
“He inspired everybody on our team every day,’’ Garza said. “The way he showed up and worked hard, it just rubbed off on everybody … Just a great player and a great person.’’
Garza was among many in the Iowa locker room who seemed to lament the end of Baer’s career as much as the fact that the Hawkeyes came up just short of completing the largest comeback in NCAA tournament history.
“We wanted to give our all, especially for Nicholas Baer since this was his last go-round,’’ said equally tearful junior guard Jordan Bohannon. “We’re really going to miss him.’’
Junior forward Tyler Cook said he hadn’t really gotten around to speaking to Baer after the game.
“I couldn’t get many words out without crying,’’ Cook said. “I will for sure. He knows how much he means to me.’’
Sitting nearby, Baer was one of the few dry-eyed people in the room, but not because he wasn’t feeling the weight of the moment. He just seemed to be numb.
“Obviously, I’m sad about it,’’ he said of the end of a college career that began as a walk-on and ended with him leading a 23-win team. “I wish everyone could have the feeling of loving something this much that you’re so upset that it’s coming to an end. I love this university, I love these guys, I’ve loved every minute of being able to wear the black and gold. I’ll miss it. I absolutely will. I’m just thankful for every opportunity I’ve had.’’
The former Bettendorf High School star said the brotherhood he developed with the other players is the thing he’ll miss the most.
“Five years from now I probably won’t remember all the Xs and Os or anything like that, but I’ll never forget the relationships I built with these guys,’’ he said.
“I’m going to miss these guys so much but I’m looking forward to watching them,’’ he added. “They’re going to be great. I’m really confident in that.’’
Baer undoubtedly is right. The future of the Iowa program is much brighter now than it was a year ago at this time.
Although the Hawkeyes had their share of ups and downs this season and occasionally tested the patience of some fickle fans, it’s impossible not to be impressed with what they did.
They matched the fourth biggest turnaround in Iowa history, going from 14-19 to 23-12. They returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years and defeated a higher-seeded team for the first time in 20 years.
They were just one fortuitous bounce or two away from also making the Sweet 16 of the tournament for the first time since 1999. After trailing Tennessee by 25 points in the first half and by 21 at halftime Sunday, they staged an astonishing rally and sent the game to overtime.
Although no one would say it, they seemed to run out of gas in the extra period. The energy expended in making the comeback finally caught up with them.
Every player on the roster except Baer has eligibility remaining although there always is the chance someone will leave the program. Cook flirted with turning pro last spring and in this crazy era of rampant transfers in college basketball, anything is possible.
But the Hawkeyes should have a team that is even deeper than this year’s squad. Head coach Fran McCaffery said he thinks Jack Nunge and CJ Fredrick, both of whom redshirted this year, should be a big help. Nunge, who started 14 games as a freshman, has beefed up to 250 pounds and Fredrick, a freshman, has added 20 pounds of muscle since arriving last fall.
Cordell Pemsl will be back after sitting out this season with lingering knee problems.
And two incoming recruits — Patrick McCaffery and Joe Toussaint — will add some different skills to the mix.
“We’ll have size and quickness and depth,’’ Coach McCaffery said. “We’ve also put together probably the toughest schedule in the history of Iowa basketball and that was done by design.’’
One thing, he admitted he might struggle to replace is the energy and inspiration the Hawkeyes got from that one departing senior.
Baer’s contributions extended far, far beyond the 791 points, 578 rebounds, 132 steals and 121 blocked shots he had in his career.
The resilience this team showed in bouncing back from a bad season and in coming from behind so frequently in so many games — Sunday included — is in no small part attributable to the positivity and leadership he exuded.
“We’re going to miss him,’’ McCaffery said. “We’re going to miss him in the locker room, as a teammate, as a friend. We’re also going to miss his play on the floor. He certainly made an impact on the history of Iowa basketball.’’