Ray Nixon had plenty of time to think about his decision to suit up for Wisconsin last year. He could have redshirted, giving himself a chance to develop off the court before he tried to earn a spot on the floor. He could have waited in order to grow accustomed to being a post player for the first time in his basketball life.
Instead, he sat and thought.
"It killed me last year once the season started going on and I see I wasn't playing a lot," Nixon said. "I just kept thinking, ‘man, I think I should have redshirted. I should have redshirted.' It just kept replaying in my head."
As a freshman, Nixon was a barely visible member of the 2002-03 Badgers. He played in 17 games, averaging just four minutes. Through the course of the season he contributed eight points and 10 rebounds total. The former Dominican (Milwaukee) High School star played in just one of the Badgers' last 10 games—a two-minute showing in a 73-42 win over Michigan. Nixon's highlight from the campaign: a 16-minute, four-point, three-rebound performance in a 73-45 win over Chicago State.
Whether redshirting or toiling on the bench, Nixon needed that year. A lifelong perimeter player, he was asked to fill a post position at Wisconsin last fall.
"(Coach Bo Ryan) just kept telling me, ‘you've got to get stronger.' So I knew I wasn't moving anywhere anytime soon," Nixon said.
Nixon still does not look the part of a Big Ten forward, but he has not had trouble holding up this season and has been rewarded for a renewed work ethic off the court.
"It is a new year, you just have to come back strong," Nixon said. "There are things out there you have to do like little stuff—passing, catching, rebounding—that's a lot of stuff I didn't concentrate on last year."
In four games this season, Nixon has played a key role off the bench. His numbers—3.0 points, 3.0 rebounds per game—do not exactly jump off the stat sheet, but Nixon has become a player on which Ryan can rely. After totaling just 70 minutes all of last season, Nixon has already logged 50 this year, seventh-most on the team, establishing himself as one of the Badger reserves who have been trusted to "add something" as Ryan often says. Despite his lack of girth, he has looked comfortable defensively underneath the basket.
"I'm trying to do the little things to get me more clock like rebounding and defending," Nixon said. "If I can continue to do those well maybe I'll get a lot more clock."
Nixon and guard/forward Clayton Hanson provided a much-need spark off the bench against Eastern Illinois Nov. 25, helping Wisconsin to an 81-47 win. Nixon tallied career highs in points (five) and rebounds (six) in that game.
"Just energy, just Ray Nixon—what we liked about him when we had him in camp, what we like about him as a person," Ryan said following the EIU game. "He brings energy on the floor defensively, on the glass, he is active and he just needs to continue to get stronger and he'll keep contributing."
Saturday against Rutgers, then, Nixon found himself among the five players depended on to finish the contest, re-entering the game with six minutes left.
"It felt good just to be in the game at the clutch," Nixon said. "I was very surprised. I was just waiting for the sub. I was like, ‘somebody is going to come in for me.' But (Ryan) kept me out there, he definitely had faith in me."
"I'm not surprised at all (at Nixon's playing time)," guard Freddie Owens said. "Ray has great ability to do a lot of things on the floor. He is bringing us great energy off the bench."
After back-to-back 16-minute games, Nixon played 13 in the overtime loss to Maryland Tuesday and seems to have found a niche in the rotation.
"He's been working hard and he's been a lot more aggressive this year," Owens said. "You can definitely see the difference from his freshman year to this year."
During practice, Nixon rotates in with the regulars but can still be found on Wisconsin's scout team, working to give the starters a strong look while continuing to grow into his new position.
"I'm not a big, physical guy," said Nixon, who stands 6-7, 205 pounds. "I'm not one of the strongest guys but coach always says to use my quickness so I try to use that as much as I can."
He may not look the part, but the sophomore's play fits just fine.