MADISON – Nigel Hayes isn’t one to threaten physical violence, especially against any one of his teammates, but he didn’t hold back Wednesday night.
Another 20-point night has become standard for Hayes (he’s done it four times on UW’s current six game winning streak), but one of the sidebar stories in Wisconsin’s 72-61 win over Nebraska was the continued emergence of junior Vitto Brown, who provided a career-high 18 points and was a perfect 3-for-3 from 3-point range.
For a player that had been hovering in the single digits throughout his career, Brown’s punch was a welcomed sight for an offense that’s starting to fire on multiple cylinders.
“It's about time, because I was ready to rough him up!” Hayes exclaimed after. “I told him to meet me outside the locker room.”
Hayes jokingly shared the same view that many Wisconsin fans seriously felt over the first two-and-half years of Brown’s career, but those fans have started to change their tune with Brown finding his rhythm during the last four games.
In wins over Indiana, Illinois, Ohio State and Nebraska, Brown is averaging 14.0 points, 3.5 rebounds and has nearly as many 3-pointers (six) than the first 20 games combined (eight).
His numbers are still modest (9.0 ppg, 5.0 rbds, 41.7 shooting) and are lower than what he averaged during the 13 game nonconference season (10.4 ppg, 7.2 rbds), but it’s all about finding his poise during the first extension action of his career.
“It feels good,” said Brown. “The best part about it is that we're taking care of business and getting the 'W,' so that's the most important thing.”
The junior from Bowling Green, Ohio, was seldom used his first two seasons because he had experienced players ahead of him in the rotation and was himself a liability defensively, usually leading to a quick hook from former head coach Bo Ryan.
And then needed to play a significant role this season with the program hit hard by graduation, Brown started steady (eight games of at least 10 points in nonconference play) only to hit a wall once conference season began. He scored more than seven points only once in the first seven games of conference play, registered no offense on three shots in a 63-60 loss to Maryland Jan.9 and suffered a rib injury Jan.21 at Penn State.
Ironically, the injury is what has sparked him.
“I was prepared mentally to go out and play aggressive, but then the injury forced me to slow down physically,” said Brown. “I couldn’t move as fast as I wanted to. I had to sit out practice the next few days and that actually was a blessing in disguise. I was able to look from the outskirts and see all these different things. I was able to apply that to my game once I got back.”
The missed practices Brown referred to came after he played just 18 minutes in UW's 82-79 overtime victory over Indiana on Jan. 26 (he still managed to score nine points on 2-for-2 from the field and 4-for-4 from the free throw line) and before UW’s road game at Illinois Jan.31
Coming off the bench for the first time all season, Brown played 12 minutes but still contributed nine points on 4-for-7 shooting in the 63-55 victory against the Illini.
He returned to the starting lineup on Feb.4 and produced 12 points and five rebounds in 19 minutes in a 79-68 victory. His biggest shot was a mid-range jumper to give UW a 75-68 lead in the final minute. The 12 points were a career-high in Big Ten play, which lasted less than a week because of his night against the Huskers.
“That's what we expect,” said Hayes. “We know he can play like that. I told him that in the beginning of the year, that's what we expect from him. He knows he can play like that. He just has to keep playing with the confidence that he has. He knows he has the ability and teams are going to keep playing off of him. He should have 18 or 20 points per game. It's just a matter of continuing to do what we do and him keeping his confidence and we'll be all right."
It’s still a work in progress for Brown. His shot selection draws the ire of head coach Greg Gard at times but those instances have started to wane over the last few games. It’s improvement to his game that he credits his good friend Hayes for.
“Nigel can go turtle speed and still score on you,” said Brown. “I’ve been watching it. You can only get better with repetition. I think I’ve been able to slow down a lot more.”
So has Brown reached a comfort level, especially considering the demanding stretch of games Wisconsin is about to embark on? No, and that’s just the way he wants it.
“I don’t want to be comfortable yet,” said Brown. “Sometimes I play too comfortable and that’s when I am not as effective. There’s still a lot of growing that I can do and this whole team can do.”