On Tuesday night, the Wisconsin Badgers secured their biggest win of the season when they knocked off the 22nd-ranked Syracuse Orange. As one might expect, Badgers’ senior star Nigel Hayes was front in center.
Hayes was one late free-throw miss away from recording a triple double. He finished with 9 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. He was all over the court and his play was no doubt a major factor in the win.
Badgers coach Greg Gard has to be counting his lucky stars that his predecessor, Bo Ryan, left him him with such a dynamic weapon. Hayes is a human Swiss Army knife on the basketball court and is simply a coach’s dream.
Depending on the situation and game flow, Hayes can be whatever Gard wants him to be on the floor.
A banger under the boards. Check.
A defensive presence. Check.
All the while providing veteran and emotional support.
While there are more exciting and athletic playmakers in college basketball, not many players have a package–which encompasses both veteran wisdom and versatility–as complete and diverse as Hayes’ arsenal.
Look no further than the Syracuse game. The hybrid forward moved the ball well in Gard’s offense. His facilitation against Syracuse’s patented 2-3 zone led to others having a huge night–namely Ethan Happ.
Syracuse could not stop Happ, and Hayes helped tremendously in that respect. Happ went off for 24 points (on a remarkable 10-12 shooting) while also hauling down 13 rebounds.
Gard had a perfect game plan to exploit Syracuse’s zone. The play of Hayes and Happ feeding off each other offered the textbook definition of how to beat the zone. They found the soft spots and played a great high-low game. Plus, Bronson Koenig making threes provided the perfect storm.
Hayes, who has been in our collective consciousness recently for his stance on social issues, is one of the brightest and most cerebral basketball players in the country. He just gets it.
After playing second fiddle to Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker in his first two seasons in Madison–in which Wisconsin made the Final Four–Hayes has matured significantly the last two years. This is his team now.
Sure, with fellow seniors Koenig, Zak Showalter and Vitto Brown on the roster, it is truly a team effort in Madison. Still, Hayes is the emotional glue that keeps it all together.
Hayes’ numbers don’t paint the picture of a superstar — 11.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, while shooting just 40 percent from the field and 29 percent from three-point range.
However, Hayes’ game goes way beyond the box score. He is not a stat compiler. Hayes’ mere presence on the court underlies his importance to Wisconsin.
He doesn’t really need to score for him and the Badgers to flourish. With Koenig (15.1 points per game) and Happ (13.4 points per game) being Gard’s go-to-scorers, Hayes is happy to take a backseat. In many ways, he plays the same role Draymond Green plays with the Golden State Warriors.
Like Green playing alongside some of the game’s best stars, Hayes is happy for others to take credit while he lays his body on the line. Hayes does all the under-appreciated dirty work with aplomb.
Look to last season to measure the impact Hayes had on Wisconsin’s growth.
After the Badgers struggled once Ryan abruptly quit early last season, there was a thought that the Badgers would fall apart. Gard was in the embryonic stages of his coaching tenure and the Badgers were 9-9 at one point (1-4 in the Big Ten), not looking like the program it had been under Ryan.
Hayes and the rest of the team would not relent. Wisconsin won 11 of its last 13 regular-season games and then advanced to the Sweet 16 before losing a tight game to Notre Dame.
For Hayes and his veteran teammates it’s all about learning in the moment and moving forward. After this season’s Wisconsin team lost games to Creighton and North Carolina early on, the Badgers needed a marquee win and they got that with the win over Syracuse. Now a game at home against Oklahoma awaits the Badgers on Saturday.
Expect Hayes to be in the thick of things in big games. Not many players embrace the bright stage more than Hayes. He revels in the pressure and the high stakes. Anticipate Hayes to keep rising to the occasion; excel in his role; and relish Wisconsin winning.
That’s what matters to Hayes — stats are secondary. He would have liked to have had that triple-double, but who wouldn’t?
As long as Hayes achieves larger goals, he won’t care about peripheral details.