The Badgers (14-0, 1-0 Big Ten) continue the best start in program history, and won their 11th straight conference opener, by scoring 44 of its points in the paint, putting at least four players into double figures for the 10th time this season and saw seven of the nine players who attempted shots shoot over 50 percent, including Hayes going 8-for-12 from the floor.
"This is an amazing group to this point," said Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, who won his ninth conference road opener at UW. "It's 14 games. They've found ways in some games to turn the tide, stem a run, manage and recover … They've been resilient. They've responded to hard teaching points."
The big benefactor of some of those points has been the 6-7 Hayes. Fresh off being named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week, the true freshman out of Toledo wasn't intimidated by the start of conference play. Hayes upped his scoring average to 6.4 per game, added a career-high six rebounds and had three assists with no turnovers.
Over the last three games, Hayes is averaging 15.3 points after averaging just 4.0 in his first 11 games.
"I was able to see the things I've been working on with the coaching staff and players on the team," said Hayes. "When I go out there, I know I have moves I've worked on and I just take what the defense gives me. If that's a shot or if they come up, I can go around them and get the layup or do whatever I need to do to score from the free throw line."
Sam Dekker can vouch for the impressiveness of Hayes' run, since he was in the same position a year ago of being the new player trying to help a veteran team. It's part of the reason why Dekker and the other upperclassmen have taken Hayes under their wing and worked on lighting the fire underneath him.
"For an 18-year-old kid to come out and do what he's been doing lately is very promising for our team," said Dekker. "I think he's going to be a matchup problem for a lot of teams because of his overall size and how well he uses his body. I try to tell him that the only person that can stop him is him. I think he's buying into that a little bit more now and he's becoming more confident as a player, and it's helping us out."
The proof was in the pudding. Northwestern (7-7, 0-1) has shied away from the Princeton offense and its infamous backdoor cuts under first year head coach Chris Collins, but that didn't stop the Badgers from executing multiple backdoor sliders that led to easy post points. In reality, UW did everything right in the paint from low post moves, to dribble drives, to slam dunks that all created easy bunnies.
Wisconsin ended up shooting 59.3 percent in the first half, building a 40-14 halftime lead, and 55.2 percent for the game.
"The guards were finding us on the inside, Nigel and I, and we were able to make some plays for ourselves and for some other people," said Frank Kaminksy (nine points, two blocks). "It's always good to go into the post early and establish that, and work from there the rest of the game."
Per usual, one player didn't do it alone for Wisconsin. The Badgers had a 32-4 edge in points in bench play (22-0 in the first half), getting production from Hayes, Duje Dukan (seven) and Bronson Koenig (four) before the bench was emptied in the final two minutes.
"The contributions we're getting from Hayes and Koenig are really pretty surprising," said Ryan. "Some of you might think it's easy (because) they're talented. It's still tough as freshmen. If it hasn't been for our upperclassmen helping them … those two guys wouldn't be playing the way they are playing without the upperclassmen helping them along the way."
Traevon Jackson shook off an early turnover to have another efficient game (10 points, 3-to-1 assists-to-turnover); Dekker finish with 15 points (including a couple alley-oop dunks) and eight rebounds while senior Ben Brust scored all 10 of his points in the second half.
And because of Hayes, six different players have led Wisconsin in scoring through 14 games.
"You just have to take advantage of it," said Jackson. "Whoever is hot you feed him. Whoever is not, try to get them going again."
Wildcats got a game and career-high 23 points from Alex Olah, but didn't get much production from leading scorer Drew Crawford. Entering the game scoring 16.4 points per game, Crawford felt the wrath of Josh Gasser's defense, as Gasser didn't score a point but held Crawford to 3-for-11 from the floor. Northwestern shot just 34.5 percent from the floor and was held to 14 first-half points.
"They haven't had all their pieces healthy to get an offensive rhythm," said Ryan.
A late arriving crowd because of a snowstorm that had been blanketing the area, fans arrived just in time to see Wisconsin start to pull away by the midway point of the first half.
Missing six of its first seven shots, Wisconsin's second-chance basket from Dekker ignited a 16-2 run over an 8:10 span that was comprised of seven layups and two free throws. That kind of production made it moot that the Badgers missed their first five 3-point attempts until Dukan connected with 3:42 remaining, as Hayes scored eight on that decisive early stretch after entering the game at 16:02 and UW down 4-3.
"I would say it helped a lot," said Hayes of the scoring lift, eventually helping UW. "I won't say it was all me, but I came out there and I made the shots when I took them. Fortunately they went in and I tried to do my best on defense to stop their big guy and help wherever I was needed.
"The spark I did bring, I guess I did help with us. It was a little battle going back and forth and I kinda opened up the game for us, helped us relax and increase our lead."