When it comes to Nigel Hayes, the true freshman continues to redefine his role, as he has accepted everything the Wisconsin coaching staff has given him.
"I told him (in January) that ‘I've got to get you more minutes. You've earned it," said Ryan. "He just simply looked me in the eye and said ‘I'm ready for whatever.' He didn't say oh it's about time, (but) basically wherever you need me."
There's no question Wisconsin needed post help having its top three forwards from last season graduated, and Hayes has responded to the challenge. Through 13 Big Ten games, Hayes is fifth on the team averaging 10.4 points per game, leads the team with 16 steals and is shooting 56.3 percent from the field, the highest among UW's rotation.
Scoring in double figures in four of the last five games, Hayes has been named the conference's player of the week four times, including the last two weeks.
"Nigel has stepped in and done a great job," said senior Ben Brust. "A lot of times when he gets the ball, positive things are going to happen, whether he scores, he gets fouled or scores and get fouled. A lot of good things have happened when we touch the post with Nigel."
Committing to Wisconsin over Ohio State in November 2012, Hayes knew there was going to be an opportunity to play early. The Badgers were targeting two low post players with their five scholarships to join only junior Frank Kaminsky – the only scholarship player on the roster with some low post experience (and even that wasn't much with Kaminsky averaging 10.3 minutes per game last season).
Instead of just striving for those minutes, Hayes strove to simply evolve as a basketball player and let the results play itself out.
"As a basketball player everyone wants to be the best they can be, so the hard work just came naturally," said Hayes. "The minutes were there to be taken. Fortunately the hard work I put in allowed me to contribute in spots."
Hayes made his presence felt from one of the first summer workouts with the team. Scrimmaging in an open gym session, Brust got knocked out of the way going for a rebound, something that rarely happened.
"I looked over and it was Nigel, this big 6-8, 240-pound freshman," said Brust. "I knew then that he knew how to use his body."
Wisconsin would likely not be in the position it is in – two games out of first place and a half game out of third place – without the play of Hayes during the Big Ten schedule. Hayes has been the lone steady producer off Wisconsin's bench and up until recently, the only consistent, aggressive post player.
When the Badgers were going through their struggles, losing five out of six, Ryan used Hayes' work ethic, on-court aggressiveness and toughness as a point of emphasis to the veterans on his roster.
"Nigel Hayes is a real find here, and without Nigel, we might not have anywhere near what we have," Ryan said, previously, calling Hayes the team's most improved player. "The things he's given us defensively, (he) very rarely makes the same mistake twice."
He also brings versatility. One game Hayes may be guarding one of the conference's best 6-8 post players, and the next game guarding a 6-2 scoring threat. His production on both ends of the floor has also taken pressure off Wisconsin guards, allowing them more freedom to make plays on the perimeter.
"He competes as hard as anybody we've ever had," said Ryan. "All the players on the team love to be around him. There's really not much that he doesn't bring to us."
Not surprisingly, Hayes had learned the most about playing defense from Josh Gasser, a Big Ten All-Defensive Team selection two years ago who has made life miserable this season for high-scoring guards Joe Harris (Virginia), Gary Harris (Michigan State) and others.
"He's very crafty," Hayes said of Gasser. "He's a little undersized in the low post, but he has great moves, great footwork and has been a big help."
Since 2002, Wisconsin has landed 15 out-of-state post players. That group that includes Alando Tucker, Jon Leuer, Jared Berggren and others, but none have made as big of a freshman impact in the Big Ten than Hayes. Part of the credit for that goes to assistant coach Lamont Paris, the lead recruiter for the Badgers who Hayes bonded with after Paris extended a scholarship offer following his junior season.
"I am a very outgoing, friendly person and from the first time I talked to Coach Paris I could tell he was a good guy," said Hayes. "My parents felt the same way, so it was a good fit for me."
Hayes has been known for his joking nature off the court, traditionally making an off-the-cuff remark following a win in the postgame press conference that generates a laugh. Known as a character, Hayes has been the total package for UW in his first season.
"What I liked about him was his attentiveness," said Paris. "His personality is really outgoing, and he's kind of a character. He's such a delight to be around and yet when he competes, everything else goes out the window."