MADISON - It appears Nigel Hayes hit his breaking point Tuesday night.
It was roughly 30 minutes after Wisconsin’s 70-65 loss at Northwestern had concluded – the third straight defeat - that a small amount of media members emerged outside the Welsh-Ryan Arena visiting locker room to see Hayes, junior Bronson Koenig and strength and conditioning coach Erik Helland engaged in an animated discussion.
Hayes did most of the talking, trying to figure out from the former Chicago Bulls strength coach during that franchise’s championship runs on how to be a better player, leader and person, and still hadn’t cooled off when it was his turn for the media.
“We have to do something. Some guys have to do some soul searching to find out why they play the game (and) what they want out of this.”
Fair or not, Hayes has received a brunt of criticism for Wisconsin’s 9-9 start, which includes a 1-4 start in conference play. The Badgers haven’t been three games under .500 since 2008-09 and haven’t waited longer for their 10th win since 2001-02.
Hayes was a major role player on Wisconsin’s back-to-back Final Four teams the last two seasons, averaging 10.1 points and shooting 50.2 percent. Knowing he was moving into the role as the team’s focal point, Hayes tinkered with his shot in the offseason, a befuddling decision he made without notifying the Wisconsin coaching staff.
The move backfired, as Hayes enters Sunday afternoon’s game against No.4 Michigan State shooting 38.1 percent overall – the worst among UW’s five starters.
But the finger pointing at Hayes is more so because of his supposed lack of leadership on the court, saying his facial expressions doesn’t change throughout the game and he is leading the huddle in critical moments.
“There’s been people who always say Nigel doesn’t care because he’s not emotional, but that’s never been my game,” said Hayes, minutes after he said he was (expletive) pissed. “You saw me all last year and I was always the one that was calm kid who was out there having fun and winning games. I’m the same way now. I’ve never been one to go around yelling, and I try not to cuss, but if that’s what it takes for me to get my guys and myself to play better and get some wins, it’s something I’ll have to do.”
While the problems aren’t major, they are widespread and inconsistent. UW held Indiana and Maryland to season low point totals last week but lost by a combined four points because the Badgers developed no flow offensively.
Against Northwestern, UW shot 47.1 percent from the field and finished with 19 assists on its 24 field goals but were bludgeoned defensively by guard Bryant McIntosh. McIntosh scored and assisted on more points in the paint (22) than UW produced as a team (18).
Part of the problem is a lack of veteran presence. UW’s two main forwards – Ethan Happ and Alex Illikainen – are freshmen with little experience but are forced to go through the groining pains on the court, opposed to the scout team, because UW has no veterans and Vitto Brown is in a funk on both ends of the court that have caused his minutes to drop.
And with the DNA of Wisconsin’s offense not having prolific perimeter shooters (nobody shooting over 38 percent), the Badgers haven’t been able to manufacture consistent production from the free throw line or a third scoring option.
Ethan Happ follows Hayes (15.8 ppg) and Koenig (13.6 ppg) in scoring with 11.2 points, but while he’s scored in double figures in eight of the last nine games, the manner in which he produces isn’t the most ideal.
Against Northwestern, a turnover on UW’s third possession caused Happ to be subbed out. When he returned a short time later, Happ’s aggressiveness was missing. He didn’t attempt his first shot until the 9:23 mark of the first half and shot only once in the first 15 minutes of the second half.
“That’s part of his personality that has to continue to develop,” said head coach Greg Gard, citing the ability to forget mistakes. “You’ve got to continue to play on and go to the next play and not let those thing effect you negatively. Again, that’s part of a freshman going through some ups and downs and not quite sure of himself.”
Hayes says getting more help goes beyond putting the ball in the hoop or relying on just one more scoring option.
“The help comes from doing the things we’re capable of,” said Hayes. “It’s quite simple to do. You don’t have to jump to get a rebound. All you have to do is put your body on someone and the ball will fall to the ground in front of you. The things we’re having trouble with … are simple things that we have to take pride in amongst ourselves as a team and do.”
Whether it’s talking to the guys in meetings or one-on-one in practices, Hayes plans to go around the room to tell his teammates where he’s at and where the team is at. On Tuesday, before the coaching staff entered the locker room, he made it clear when he told his teammates that he was embarrassed and tired of it.
“Hopefully the words got through,” said Hayes. “Sometimes you don’t have to respond for the message to get through … It comes to a point now where you have to be embarrassed with what’s going on. There’s no more we’re learning, we’re getting there, these are good losses. There’s no such thing.”