WASHINGTON – Before arriving at the Marriott Wardham Park for the conference’s annual media day Thursday, senior Nigel Hayes found out he became the fourth Wisconsin player in the last 14 years to be named the Big Ten’s preseason conference player of the year.
His reaction? He’s not a fan.
“The preseason player of the year is the dumbest thing ever,” Hayes said. “It is worse than a participation trophy. At least if you have a participation trophy you've done something. I haven't done anything yet. I literally showed up.”
Showing up is a good start considering the alternative. After averaging 15.7 points and 5.8 rebounds per game as a junior, Hayes declared for the N.B.A. draft in April to take advantage of new evaluation rules for underclassmen. Testing his draft stock without hiring an agent, Hayes was invited to the draft combine and attended multiple workouts across the country before pulling his name from consideration right before the deadline.
That’s good news for Wisconsin, considering Hayes was a first-team All-Big Ten selection last year and was the only unanimous selectee for the 10 player preseason team this year. His presence means the Badgers return their entering starting and bench rotation from a season ago.
“You might good this year, you might not be, it really doesn't mean anything,” Hayes said. “Now guys are thinking they are better than me. I have one (target) ring on my back from playing for Wisconsin, I have another ring because we are good. Now I have another ring on my back because of the preseason player of the year, and players are thinking they are better than me.
“Players are thinking you are going to die when we play you. We are literally going to try to kill you when we play you. It just adds fuel to the fire. It brings out competition, which is good. I guess I would rather be the preseason player of the year than not. But if I wasn't, I would still be looking at whoever won thinking, just wait until we play you.”
Last season Hayes struggled with the attention placed on his shoulders. Thrust into a leadership role with the graduation of Frank Kaminsky – the consensus national player of the year – and Sam Dekker declaring for the draft, Hayes took the brunt of the criticism for UW’s 9-9 start, getting critiqued by his lack of on-the-court emotion and standoffishness.
While he averaged 20 points during a seven-game conference winning streak, Hayes finished the season shooting 36.8 percent from the floor and 29.3 percent from 3-point range (worst among UW’s starting lineup). The numbers were even worse in Wisconsin’s four post season games, as he shot 11-for-54 (20.1 percent) and 2-for-21 (9.5 percent) from 3-point range.
All that feels like ages ago now.
“I haven't really been a vocal leader,” Hayes said. “I've never been a crazy Ray Lewis type to motivate people, although I had to do that a little bit last year and turned the team around. This year I've internalized our goals and made them part of our lives. For the next six or seven months, that is our only focus and we will devote everything to it. Anything but achieving those goals will be a failure for the season.”
Hayes has always been one to set the program’s goals higher. In the same recruiting class as senior point guard Bronson Koenig, the two talked about wanting to elevate the program to the point of competing yearly for national championships. Having played in two Final Fours his first two seasons, including the championship game in 2014, Hayes knows the blueprint – toughness, experience and leadership.
He sees that in himself and his point guard.
“Bronson is the best point guard in the league,” Hayes said. “I'm glad he is on my team. I feel like I'm the best player in the conference, and I'm the hardest to guard, because you can't guard me with anybody. You are either going to be too small or too slow or just not good enough. I feel it will always be a mismatch. But I also think that every player should feel the same way, otherwise, why are you playing?
“All we care about are post season awards, accolades, and accomplishments. Winning takes care of everything. I'll go out there and do what I need to do; go out there and win some games, play really well. Hopefully I can get everything at the end of the year.”
The Big Ten no longer does preseason team projections, but it’s hard to argue that the Badgers wouldn’t be the favorite with Purdue, Indiana and Michigan State not far behind. Per usual, Wisconsin’s nonconference schedule will be full of challenges: at Creighton, playing in the loaded Maui Invitational, hosting 2016 Final Four teams Oklahoma and Syracuse and travelling to Marquette before the conference opener Dec.27 against Rutgers.
Expectations are high once again around the program, but Hayes didn’t need any media poll to tell him that.
“We need four trophies and anything less would be a failure of a season,” he said. “We place higher expectations upon ourselves than the media ever could.”