Tuesday, March 31, 2020
Former Spirit Lake hoops star Ryan Kriener's college career ends abruptly with a championship
His ferocious dunks used to send the Indians faithful into a frenzy.
His hustle and grit made him a fan favorite inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
But it was a tweet that made former Spirit Lake High School and University of Iowa basketball player Ryan Kriener a champion.
"If the NCAA tournament is canceled we are calling dibs on the national championship," the 6-10, 255-pound Hawkeyes senior tweeted moments after a team meeting on March 11. The Hawkeyes were preparing for their first game of the 2020 Big Ten Conference Men's Basketball Tournament in Indianapolis. They were slated to play rival Minnesota the following afternoon.
In that meeting, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery and athletic director Gary Barta told the team that they would likely play Thursday's game against the Golden Gophers without any fans in attendance if the game was played at all.
Kriener said things became more clear while watching Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg become visibly sick on the sidelines of the Huskers' 89-64 loss to Indiana on Wednesday night.
"(Hoiberg) had to go to the locker room. They quarantined Nebraska's team. He went and got tested for coronavirus right away," Kriener said. "I'm pretty good friends with some of the guys on the Minnesota team because I almost committed there coming out of high school, so we were talking through the entire night about how if Hoiberg has it there's no way we're going to play. It was just unreal times. Everyone was watching Twitter and talking with everyone they know. It was just a very surreal moment and something I'll never forget."
Less than 24 hours later, NCAA President Mark Emmert and the Board of Governors announced that the rest of the winter sports postseason, and the entire spring sports season, were canceled due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
In a flash, Kriener's college hoops career was over.
"It was just absolute shock and denial," he said.
Despite his disappointment, Kriener said his tweet which had begun circulating through the sports world even before the NCAA's announcement was able to provide some levity.
Thanks to the timeliness of his tweet, many on social media declared that the Hawkeyes were air quotes national champions after the NCAA's announcement. For a brief moment, the Hawkeyes' "victory" even appeared on Wikipedia.
"It made me laugh. I thought it was kind of funny," Kriener said. "It gave us something to laugh about even though the tournament was canceled. Plus, it was all over Wikipedia. If it's on Wikipedia, it's gotta be true."
Several other athletes and teams tried to contest the Hawkeyes' claim.
Kentucky's Jonny David even tried to take a swipe at the trophy, claiming dibs for his Wildcats with a tweet on March 12. But that's not how dibs works, and The Big Cat was having none of it.
"You are late to the party my friend," Kriener, who goes by @B1Gcat15, tweeted at the Wildcats' senior guard. "You can have runner up though."
Even before becoming an all-everything player at Spirit Lake and leading the Indians to their first state basketball tournament appearance since WWII Kriener always wanted to be a Hawkeye.
After a stellar AAU season between his junior and senior years of high school, Kriener received an offer from Minnesota coach Richard Pitino and briefly considered becoming a Golden Gopher. However, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery too came calling, and Kriener wasted little time accepting.
"I grew up a Hawkeye fan. When I got the offer, it was kind of a surreal moment for me because it's what I've worked (toward) for a really long time," Kriener said after committing to the Hawkeyes. "Iowa was my dream school and it's where I wanted to go. After I was offered, I just had to take a step back and say, 'Hey, this really just happened. This is where I want to be. Why leave it on the table any longer than it has to?'"
After averaging 22.4 points and 11.8 rebounds for the Indians as a senior, Kriener began prepping for his college hoops career. However, an illness sidelined the forward for most of the summer.
He saw limited action in 28 games for the Hawkeyes as a freshman that winter, averaging 3.1 points and 2.2 rebounds in 8.4 minutes per game. The following year, Kriener suffered a trio of concussions that limited him to an average of 10.4 minutes in 27 games. He averaged 3.6 points and 1.9 rebounds per contest.
It wasn't the start that he had envisioned.
"Some of the things that turned out to be true were definitely the atmosphere, the fans, the friendships that I knew I was going to have because I went there with Jordan (Bohannon) and Cordell (Pemsl) who I played a lot of AAU basketball with," Kriener said. "Those were some of the things that went right. Other than that, there's probably not a lot that went as planned. I remember on orientation day, I went down and switched my major three times by the end of the day."
Eventually, Kriener settled on a major sport and recreation management and carved out a role on the team.
"Initially, I wasn't getting a lot of minutes," he said. "My role was to be a scout team guy and give the starters the best look that I could. Later, I started to play a little bit more, but I knew I was only going to get about 8 minutes in the game, so I was going to go out and play as hard as I could for those 8 minutes. I think that (mentality) is something that really propelled me throughout my career. You never really know how long you're going to be out there. You just have to make the most of what you get."
As a junior, Kriener's role expanded. He appeared in all 35 games, including two starts, and averaged 5.7 points and three rebounds per game for the Hawkeyes, who qualified for the 2019 NCAA National Tournament and earned a first-round win over No. 22 Cincinnati. Kriener shared the team's Most Improved Player Award with classmate Isaiah Moss.
He credited his early struggles with his later success.
"One of the biggest things that I learned from those moments was just how much I love the game of basketball and how much it means to me," Kriener said. "To be at your dream school and not be able to really do what you want to do because you're sidelined and have to watch everyone else have all of the fun, that sucks. It's something like, absence makes the heart grow fonder. It made me cherish everything that I had that much more."
THE END OF THE ROAD
Kriener's senior season started with plenty of question marks.
Tyler Cook the team's star player during the Hawkeyes' tournament run the previous year opted to enter the NBA draft and forgo his final year of college eligibility. Maishe Dailey the fifth player in Kriener's recruiting class transferred to the University of Akron.
Even Kriener's best friend and roommate of four years Jordan Bohannon began the season with an injury that eventually led to his decision to redshirt.
Pemsl had redshirted earlier in his career due to injury, leaving Kriener as the lone active player from his recruiting class in his final season.
"It was definitely really hard at the end of my junior year knowing that this was going to happen," he said. "It was originally just going to be Jordan and me, but then he opted to redshirt this year and we both kind of knew it was going to happen. We talked about it a lot. He's definitely one of my dearest friends. I've roomed with him for four years, so we've had a lot of difficult conversations about that. It was really weird because we had all of these dreams of competing and going out on top and walking the graduation stage and taking goofy pictures afterward. None of that gets to happen now. It's definitely strange."
As the year went on, the Hawkeyes continued to face adversity, but Kriener rose to the occasion.
He emerged as a senior leader and along with the rise of All-American junior Luka Garza helped salvage what could have been a lost season.
The Hawkeyes went 20-11 overall and 11-9 in the conference. Kriener averaged career-highs in points (7.7) and rebounds (4.1). He was the team's leading scorer off the bench and was in the conversation for Sixth Man of the Year in the Big Ten.
The Hawkeyes were looking to make noise in the conference tournament and, hopefully, a run in the NCAA tournament.
Then, Kriener's season and career came to a crashing halt that afternoon in Indianapolis.
Weeks later, while back at his parents Rich and Nancy Kriener's home in the Lakes Area, the reality still hadn't fully set in.
"Sort of. I mean, it's not like I'm getting it back," Kriener said with a chuckle. "I definitely feel cheated out of all the hard work we did. If they released a bracket tomorrow and had Selection Sunday a little late, I'm definitely driving back to Iowa City and getting ready to play, I'll tell you that much.
"I've accepted it. I don't know if I've really moved on from it yet, though."
THE ROAD AHEAD
While back at home, Kriener has remained active despite the closure of gyms and wellness centers across the state due to the pandemic.
He said he continues to run the trails throughout Okoboji to stay in shape, and is in the process of vetting agents for a basketball career overseas. He predicts that he will know his future in the coming weeks.
"It's very similar to the recruiting process, except you don't really get to go on visits, which makes it a little difficult," Kriener said. "It's a huge career choice. You can't really leave any stone unturned. You have to try to make the most informed and educated decision that you can. It's been a little overwhelming at times. I've been on the phone 4-7 hours some days doing my research, taking calls, doing presentation conferences while agents pitch to me. It's definitely been a lot, but I'm hoping it's going to be worth it."
Kriener has experience playing basketball internationally. He and the rest of the Hawkeyes played a series of exhibition games in Europe after his freshman season. Last summer, he competed on the USA East Coast All-Star Team that went 3-0 in Athens, Greece.
He said he is excited about the prospect of playing professional basketball overseas.
"My goal ever since I've been a little kid is to take this game as far as I can and play at the highest level that I can," Kriener said. "It's just kind of a dream that's progressively coming closer and closer to being realized and I can't wait."
While it wasn't the ending that he ultimately hoped for, Kriener said he will look back at his time at the University of Iowa fondly.
"I don't know if I'm going to be able to remember plays and specific games, but I'm always going to remember the guys and celebrating and all of the hard times and the toughest workouts we did," he said. "I'll have so many great stories of being around such a great group of guys. That's something that I'll always be able to look back on and smile about."
Before leaving Iowa City, however, the 2020 March Sadness National Champion (it says so in his Twitter bio) put his dibs skills to work one last time, claiming the title of valedictorian with a tweet after the university canceled its spring graduation ceremony.
"As far as a senior year goes," Kriener said, "I don't know if you can ask for much more than that."