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Badgers eyeing big contributions from Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig this season

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After a pair of impressive freshman campaigns, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are vying for more playing time this season.

Harry How

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Returning seven of the top eight starters from a 30-win Final Four team, this year's Wisconsin Badgers were voted unanimously by Big Ten beat writers to win the conference. Frank Kaminsky was chosen as the Big Ten Player of the Year favorite, and he, with Sam Dekker, has been discussed as a National Player of the Year candidate. The team also ranks fourth in the country, according to the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll.

The positives appear never-ending for this year's crop of Badgers, but they will take the court at the Kohl Center for the season opener on November 14 without the program's all-time leading three-point shooter and one of the vocal leaders of last year's squad: Ben Brust.

"It's going to be tough to replace Ben," Dekker said Thursday at Big Ten media day just outside of Chicago. "He was one the best players that we've had in a long time.

"It was not only his shooting, but also his ability to wreak havoc on a defense, making them spread out and having them respect him no matter where he was on the court. He was also a really good rebounder and energy guy for us. That's something we're going to have to replace."

Last season, Brust scored more points per game (12.8) than every Badger but Kaminsky. He shot 39.3 percent from three-point range and snagged 4.5 rebounds per game, an impressive tally for a 6'1 guard.

"Nobody for his size rebounded the way he did," Ryan said. "He gave us some dimensions that might be a little difficult to replace, but we've got some guys that are trying to do that right now."

Sophomores Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are poised to be the "some guys" Ryan is referring to. Hayes scored 7.7 points per game for Ryan last season, but his real strength lies in his ability to get to the free-throw line. He shot 164 free throws last season, second only to Traevon Jackson, who played nearly twice as minutes.

The Toledo, Ohio, native didn't attempt a single three-pointer last year, but Ryan noted that Hayes' reluctance to take the three is bound to change.

"Believe it or not, Nigel will take three-point shots this year," Ryan said, "but not that he's going to fall in love with it to the point that he doesn't get to the free-throw line on some of his power moves."

"Believe it or not, Nigel will take three-point shots this year." -Bo Ryan, on Nigel Hayes

Last year, Koenig played just over 15 minutes per game, averaging 3.5 points and 1.1 assists per game. He showed flashes of excellence in the Final Four, when he scored 11 first-half points to spark the Badgers to a four-point halftime lead against Kentucky.

Drawing from Hayes' and Koenig's strong performances last season, The Badgers' seniors maintain the utmost confidence in the sophomore duo.

"It's going to be tough for them transitioning into Ben's spot," Kaminsky said, "but I have all the confidence in the world in them. They did a lot of good things for us as freshmen last year and they've made big jumps this summer, so it'll be good years for them."

"That second year can be huge for guys," senior guard Josh Gasser added. "As a freshman, you're coming in not really understanding or knowing what to expect from the college game. Now that they got a year under their belts, they're just a lot more confident in themselves and in what they can do to help the team out. They're extremely talented kids."