IOWA CITY — Fran McCaffery knew all the depth he has on his basketball team would pay off at some point this season.
The Iowa coach just didn’t expect it to happen this soon.
McCaffery's Hawkeyes will open the regular season tonight with an 8 p.m. home game against Chicago State, and they’ll take the court without their most vocal leader.
Junior forward Nicholas Baer already has been sidelined by a broken pinkie finger on his left hand that is expected to keep him out for at least three weeks.
Baer probably was going to be used off the bench as the team’s supersub with fellow junior Ahmad Wagner starting at the small forward position. But the absence of the former Bettendorf star opens up even more chances for Wagner, freshman Jack Nunge and possibly senior Dom Uhl to show what they can do at that position.
Baer is noted for the energy that he brings in a reserve role, and McCaffery conceded it's "a big loss."
"But I do think we have others that can step in," he said. "And I expect them to play well. I expect Ahmad to step up, and Jack. Even though he's a freshman, he's really good. I'm really impressed with him. He's been phenomenally consistent from the summer, and Dom will be ready to go. Maishe Dailey is another guy that the last few weeks he's been tremendous. So we'll be fine."
The 6-foot-7 Wagner admitted he still is adjusting to playing small forward — aka the 3 position — after playing power forward and center most of the time in his first two years of college. He said he feels like a 3½ right now.
He just hopes to contribute the same sort of qualities that Baer does.
"Just be able to bring his energy, match his energy," Wagner said. "Nicholas comes in and makes plays immediately. With me being in the starting lineup, I hope to do that, to make plays at the beginning of the game and every time I’m in there."
While Wagner is not counted on to do as much scoring as Baer, he said he has been making 3-point field goals at a fairly consistent rate in practice.
"I’m not going to play out of character just because Baer is out, but I’m going to shoot 3s when I’m open and spot open teammates, just do what I can to help the team win," Wagner said.
Nunge, who is 6-11 and was primarily a post player in high school, said he feels he has gradually adjusted to the speed of the game at the college level. McCaffery said he has been more than happy with the way the freshman has adapted to playing the 3.
"I thought he could, but you truly don't know until you have a chance to watch him," McCaffery said. "A lot of times guys can play another position offensively, but they can't defensively. And he's equally adept in both areas. He can put it on the deck, he can shoot it outside, he can drive to the hole, and he can post up.
"But defensively he moves his feet really well, and he takes advantage of his length. Kind of like Jarrod (Uthoff) used to. He can guard smaller people."
Baer injured the finger in practice earlier this week when he and a teammate were going for a loose ball at the same time. He thought he had just jammed it at first so he taped it up and continued to play.
X-rays taken after practice revealed the fracture.
He said he’s not entirely sure when he’ll be able to play again, but he said he is hoping to be ready for a Nov. 28 game at Virginia Tech.
"I’ve just been pounding calcium. Hopefully that helps a little bit," Baer said. "I know the doctor said it doesn’t help, but maybe a little magic will happen."
He said he thought about just taping the finger and continuing to play but decided to take a few weeks off to let it heal properly.
"Obviously, we have some other guys who will step up and get some opportunities to play and prove themselves," he said. "That’s the strength of our team that we have this much depth."