At the beginning of the Wisconsin men’s basketball season, I never knew what to expect going into a Bo Ryan press conference, no matter how many I had previously attended. It seemed the only thing you could count on was at least one story from “back in the day.” But, as the regular season began to wind on, it became apparent that I could add one more expectation to coach Ryan pressers: Nigel Hayes.
The freshman forward out of Toledo, Ohio gradually carved a spot for himself in the rotation and not long after, Hayes became a favorite among fans, media and his coaches, including Ryan.
His ability to absorb coaching, draw fouls and absurd consistency with his mid-range jumper made him a coach’s dream. His quirky personality, expressiveness and fixation with useless trivia made him an instant hit with the media and fans alike. The result was Hayes’ hysteria in the press room as it seemed the freshman’s name came up in interviews whether it was prompted or not.
As a freshman, Hayes has become one of the most consistent players for Wisconsin — save for the free-throw troubles — and has begun to grab the attention of the Big Ten conference, earning his fourth Freshman of the Week award and thrusting his name into the Big Ten Freshman of the Year discussion.
With just a month left in the regular season, it looks like a two-horse race between Hayes and Indiana’s Noah Vonleh for the freshman of the year honors. But I believe Hayes’ case is getting stronger by the game, and although his stats are not quite on Vonleh’s level, his impact with the Badgers makes up for anything that might be lacking in the stats department.
Hayes is averaging 7.9 points, 2.6 rebounds per game and a 53.7 shooting percentage — second best on the team among players with at least 25 games played.
Vonleh’s numbers are gaudier as the freshman out of Haverhill, Mass. averages nearly a double-double with 11.6 points and 9.5 rebounds per game along with a shooting percentage of 54 percent. However, the Hoosier averages nearly eight more minutes per game than Hayes and plays for a bad team.
It seems logical that playing for a team in the bottom half of the Big Ten would be a disadvantage for a young player, but I believe the opposite is true. I think Indiana’s down season gives Vonleh more freedom on the court and presents a willingness from the coaching staff to give him minutes that he might not otherwise get on a stronger, deeper team.
Don’t get me wrong. I still think Vonleh is a terrific player with a very high ceiling. He has a very bright future in front of him and likely a successful professional career. But, just looking at individual accomplishments and contributions to the team, I think Hayes has a stronger case.
The biggest thing Hayes has going for him is that he plays for a team that will more than likely finish in the top four of the conference, again. The fact that Hayes has contributed as much as he has and owns such an important role with Wisconsin as a freshman is impressive. Granted, the Badgers were in desperate need of frontcourt help, so Hayes may have landed in Madison at just the right time.
But, just because there is a need at a position doesn’t mean a player is going to get inserted into the lineup just by necessity, not on a Bo Ryan coached team. But, Hayes has met coach Ryan’s lofty standards and has worked his way to becoming the first player off the bench for Wisconsin.
The 6-foot-7 forward has shown massive improvement in his game since beginning his collegiate career in November. In his first 11 games, Hayes averaged just four points and 1.7 rebounds. Now, in his last 15 games, he is nearly tripling those numbers, averaging more than 11 points and four rebounds per game.
Hayes’ effectiveness and offensive production in the latter half of the season isn’t lost on his head coach.
“But when we’re effective, I’ll tell you the catalyst still has been Nigel, without a doubt,” Ryan said after Wisconsin’s home win over Minnesota Feb. 13.
When you have been with the program for less than a year and Ryan, who has been coaching for 29 years, is already calling you a guy he’ll remember coaching when he looks back on his career, you’ve done something special.
Not only does Hayes have a shot at Freshman of the Year, but sixth man of the year is a real possibility as well, as he averages the most points and rebounds and has the highest shooting percentage of any player in the Big Ten who has not started a game in the Big Ten.
But whether or not the quirky kid from Toledo might get the nod for any Big Ten awards this season, he will still find his way into press conferences and will more than likely still bring a smile to his coach’s face.