LOS ANGELES - Nigel Hayes’ phone wouldn’t stop buzzing Friday evening.
There were plenty of reason for Wisconsin fans to be excited. Hayes was a key figure in Wisconsin’s 86-72 win over Coastal Carolina, scoring 15 points and eight rebounds to put the Badgers one win away from its fourth Sweet 16 in five years.
While there were congratulatory messages and well wishes for his game against Oregon, Hayes said the majority of people – north of 3,000 Tweeters - were sending him obscure and seldom-used words to use in his next press conference after his good-nature exchange with the NCAA tournament stenographer.
“It was a little overwhelming,” said Hayes, “but at the same time kind of interesting to see some of the words I learned.”
Taking every opportunity to expand his knowledge has been a key trait for Hayes, who slowly but surely is having the conversation around him centered more about his budding potential for top-seeded University of Wisconsin than his career as a wordsmith.
The 2014 Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year, Hayes earned third-team All-Big Ten this season after averaging 12.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game as a starter. He’s elevated himself to an even higher level through five postseason games, averaging 16 points and earned Big Ten all-tournament honors after averaging 17 points and 6.7 rebounds.
“You could see how much he grew throughout the year,” said senior Josh Gasser. “Nigel brings something different. He’s a big guy, strong kid who has a great back-to-the-basket game. He’s really developed his perimeter game. His intangibles are really good. He’s so calm on the floor, great passer for the big and does so many things that really help us out.”
The work Hayes has done on the court hasn’t gone unnoticed for the Badgers (33-3), who are looking to advance to their second straight Elite Eight when they take on fourth-seed North Carolina (26-11) tonight at the Staples Center.
“I tell him every game to be aggressive because I truly think he is the guy that can take us from a good team to a great team,” said Gasser. “When Nigel plays well, we tend to play well and visa-versa. That’s not to put pressure on him, that’s just the type of player he is. He’s one of the most versatile players not just in the league, but in the country.”
He also could be one of the goofiest. On a team full of goofballs, Hayes is the ringleader and often the instigator. After meeting the NCAA tournament stenographer following the win over Coastal Carolina and getting a crash course in her machine used to take shorthand, Hayes used the words cattywampus, onomatopoeia and antidisestablishmentarianism, just to test the stenographer’s abilities.
“She does an amazing job of typing words,” said Hayes. “Sometimes if words are not in her dictionary, maybe if I say soliloquy right now, she may have to work a little bit harder to type that word, or quandary, zephyr, Xylophone, things like that, that make her job really interesting.”
Hayes expanded his word knowledge at a young age when his stepfather would encourage him to read. When Hayes came across a word he didn’t know, he’d look it up and file it away for future use.
He took the same approach in the offseason after UW’s season ended in the national semifinals. When asked about the areas of his game he worked on after his true freshman year, Hayes listed shooting ability, ball handling, free throws, defensive prowess and all-around ability.
“Pretty much everything,” Hayes said. “It's allowed me to do better things this year.”
The results speak for itself. While national player of the year candidate Frank Kaminsky and potential NBA lottery pick Sam Dekker get most of the hype, Hayes, somewhat quietly, is third on the team in points (12.6), ranks ninth in the Big Ten with 6.4 rebounds per game, leads the team in steals (32) and is third in blocks (16).
After not attempting a 3-pointer in a game last season and shooting only 58.5 percent from the free throw line, Hayes is shooting 39.3 percent (33-for-84) from 3-point range and 74.2 percent (115-for-155) from the free throw line this year.
In the Big Ten tournament, Hayes shot a team-best 53.8 percent (7-of-13) from 3-point range and was a perfect 16-of-16 at the free throw line, helping the Badgers net the third tournament title in school history.
“He’s a matchup problem,” said Wisconsin associate head coach Greg Gard. “When he completely commits to it all the time – and I think as he goes further in his career he’ll understand how important that is. With his size, and his quickness in the paint, and now he can shoot on the perimeter, his willingness to go in there and bang a little bit and park himself on the block is huge.”
The matchup in the low block will be a key determinate in which team advances to Saturday’s regional final. The Tar Heels are battle tested – going 11-10 against the NCAA tournament field – and have six McDonald’s All Americans, but could be without 6-9 sophomore center Kennedy Meeks.
Meeks, who averages 11.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, sustained a knee sprain late in the Arkansas game and is a game time decision. With or without Meeks, North Carolina coach Roy Williams said the challenge of Kaminsky is something the Tar Heels are taking “very, very seriously.”
Hayes joked, as he usually does, that this season has been an honor to play with the nation’s best college player. It’s evident that Kaminsky’s company has started to rub off, which has put Wisconsin on a brink of adding more accolades to the best season in program history.
“Put a bigger guy on (Hayes) and he can spin and duck and dive around him; put a smaller guy on him and he can overpower him,” said Gard. “We can see the obvious, but sometimes for him to see the obvious, to accept it, to embrace it, that’s a huge step for him moving forward.”