“I’ve tried to always not to make the excuse that I was a freshman and learn on the fly. I learned things and I feel like I did do a pretty good job. Experience is a great teacher for you. It allows you to go out there calm. This year everything is slower, easier to figure out and I’m not so uptight making sure I have to learn things. I know what to expect and what’s to come.”
MADISON - So many times in his interaction with the media, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan would go off on a tangent and reminisce about a story from his past that would, or in some cases wouldn’t, emphasize the point he was trying to make.
But he rarely makes his stories up and he didn’t start when asked if he envisioning Nigel Hayes as a 3-point shooter in college.
“He can get to the free throw line; physically he can do some things defensively and all that. Now he's expanded his game a little bit,” Ryan said. “Isn't that what's fun about what we do, to see these guys grow in different ways?”
Hayes shot a lot of 3-pointers his senior year at Toledo (OH) Whitmer High, so assistant coach Lamont Paris, who primarily recruited Hayes, knew he had the ability, but didn’t know if that part of his game would translate into college.
But as Hayes’ freshman season wore on, a year in which he averaged 9.8 points per game in conference en route to Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year, Paris had an inkling from Hayes’ work ethic and ability to hit a mid-range jumper that the potential was there.
“Once he started making mid-range jumpers in games, if a guy can hit from 15-to-16 feet consistently, you feel like most times you can do some things to extend his range,” said Paris.
Overall improvement was Hayes’ blanket focus for the summer, but said the majority of his offseason was spent on him working on becoming a better outside shooter. He showed off that skill in an open practice this season, making 14 of 23 3-pointers in a shooting drill.
Hayes joked he wants to fill the void of Ben Brust, who left as the school’s record holder in 3-point makes, but in reality wanted to be a player who could create more problems for opposing defenses.
“I would say I’m just a basketball player who does a better job than most at exploiting mismatches,” said Hayes. “I have a well-rounded game, which is why I have worked tirelessly on my outside shot. It’s not so much I can be an outside shooter now or play inside; it’s whatever is easiest to score on whoever is guarding me.”
Always a big body, Hayes demonstrated athleticism around the rim that allowed him to score on the low block (he led UW shooting 54.6 percent from the field) and get to the free throw line, ranking second on the Badgers with 164 free throw attempts.
Hayes is still that big body, but he shed between 10-15 pounds over the summer and added a large amount of strength and agility thanks to strength coach Erik Helland’s workouts.
“I am lighter, so I am able to move more weight, but I have less weight on me,” said Hayes, who is now around 235 pounds. “It’d be like me playing with a 10-15 pound weight vest on in practice and take it off for the game. I think it will help me a lot with getting up and down the court, playing above the rim with the big guys and getting rebounds by out jumping.”
Versatility of offense was one of the main factors Hayes chose Wisconsin over a handful of schools, including Ohio State, a fact a lot of his friends had trouble understanding until the Badgers made their Final Four run with Hayes right in the mix.
“That (Ohio State) question pretty much stopped being asked,” Hayes said. “’Are you sure you made the right decision?’ That was always the question. People answer and ask the same question by (saying), ‘This is how you knew.’ I guess the Final Four doesn’t hurt in the decision.”
With Wisconsin returning seven of their top eight scorers from a year ago, and with Hayes adding a perimeter element to his game, the Badgers appear more dangerous on paper than a year ago. A championship of any kind this season would really silence his friends.
“Knowing that we have basically almost the same team as we had last year and the guys last year are now better, we hope over summer workouts, we got there with what we had and now we have more,” said Hayes. “We feel like we’re better within our own team to get the job done.”