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Wisconsin basketball 2014 exit interviews: Nigel Hayes

A star was born in Madison this season.

Jeff Gross

Bo Ryan plays freshmen -- but only when they’re ready. In 2013-14, Nigel Hayes was ready to play from the get-go. The Toledo, Ohio, native saw action in the first half of the season opener against St. John’s (as did Bronson Koenig, momentarily) and played eight minutes in total. He didn’t do much (1-of-1 from the field, two turnovers, four fouls) but a true freshman playing the first half of a season-opener for Ryan meant something. It meant the young man was ready to play.

Hayes played in all 38 games, scoring in every one of them. That's the most games ever played by a freshman in Wisconsin history (Koenig played in 37 games, sitting out the Florida game). It's kind of a cheap record because the Badgers have never played 38 games in a season before — so it’s also the most games ever played by a sophomore, junior or senior — but still. Assuming he stays healthy for four years, chances are good that Hayes will shatter Ryan Evans’ record for most games played by a Badger (138), though Josh Gasser will (hopefully) break the record first, as he’s played in 108 games heading into his senior year.

Getting to the line

As the season went on, Hayes put some other UW record-holders on notice as well. Starting at mid-season, Hayes made a living at the free-throw line. He set the record for most free throws attempted by a Badgers freshman with 164, breaking Rashard Griffith’s record of 162. Alando Tucker holds the career records for free throws made and attempted (520 and 817, respectively). Watch out.

Hayes easily led the Big Ten in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (at 7.3; Nebraska's Terran Pettaway was a distant second at 6.2) and ended the season with a free-throw rate (FTAs / FGAs) of 85.3, the highest of any Badger to play under Ryan.

Exit Interviews

All told, Hayes was instrumental in leading the Badgers from their recent over-dependence on perimeter shooting, back to the more balanced approach of Ryan’s early teams, which were famous for getting inside and making more free throws than their opponents attempted. For the first time in many years, last year’s Badgers accomplished this feat. As a team, their free-throw rate improved from 29.7 in 2012-13 (the second-lowest ever under Ryan) to 42.6 (the second-highest).

Although he took more free throws than any Badger freshman ever, Hayes' 96 makes are only fourth-best (behind Devin Harris' 101, Sam Okey's 100 and James Gregory's 97. This highlights one of the few weaknesses in Hayes’ freshman campaign: a poor free-throw shooting percentage of 58.5 percent. This needs to improve, and there is every reason to expect that Hayes -- whose mid-range jumper was at times unstoppable -- will get that number into the 60s or higher next year.

Making a difference

By the time Big Ten season rolled around, Hayes had established himself as a true sixth man -- the first player off the bench, usually at the first media timeout or before, relied on to bring a spark to the offense. He scored at least 10 points 12 times, and nine of those were Big Ten games.

NIGEL HAYES' BEST GAMES OF 2013-14           
WISC 76, NU 49 156.3 6.4 22.8 23 19 8-12 66.6 3-4 33.3 0 2
OSU 59, WISC 58 141.9 4.3 16.7 29 17 6-7 85.7 5-11 157.1 0 2
WISC 86, EKU 61 140.7 15.0 0.0 14 17 2-3 66.6 13-17 566.6 2 0
WISC 83, MINN 57 145.4 0.0 24.2 23 15 6-9 66.6 3-6 66.6 0 3
WISC 78, MINN 70 121.1 6.4 16.5 25 15 5-7 71.4 5-6 85.7 3 2

When Hayes was in the game, he was a huge part of the Badgers’ offense, accounting for a team-high 26.7 percent of possessions used. That's the eighth-highest possession percentage by a Badger since 2003, and easily the highest by a freshman (Brian Butch is second, at 23.9 percent) under Ryan. Nationwide, it was the sixth-highest possession-percentage among freshman with at least a 100 offensive rating and 40 percent of minutes played. Number seven on that list was Kentucky's Julius Randle. So Hayes got his.

Making a plan for next year

In all likelihood, the Badgers will move back to a more conventional starting lineup next year, with Hayes moving into the lineup as the power forward alongside Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker in the frontcourt. One of the few questions about the Badgers heading into next year is how Hayes will handle those added minutes. Will he continue to be a high-usage player, or will he defer to the three seniors and the junior that he’ll often be playing with? My guess is that he won’t have to.

Along with most of the team, Hayes’ biggest weakness coming out of last year is defense. Hayes often looked lost on defense, but this is something we’ve seen from many Badger freshmen under Ryan. I expect Hayes to take a great leap forward on defense next year, along with the rest of the team.

Another question heading into next year is whether the Big Ten will figure him out. Nigel’s plethora of post moves and awkward-but-effective moves to the rim were extremely effective last year, but he didn't make a big impression in the NCAA tournament, scoring a total of 28 points in five games and notably getting to the line just seven times.

Finally, there's the issue of three-pointers. Other than Kevin Gullickson (who hardly counts) Hayes is the only rotation player under Ryan to not even attempt a three-pointer for an entire season. Ryan went on record late in the season saying that Hayes hits them in practice, and that's something we'll certainly see him try to add to his game at some point. That he took zero three-pointers last year is, I think, a remarkable testament to Hayes’ basketball IQ and discipline -- he knew the Badgers had better options out there, and that he was having a huge effect on the game down low and in the mid-range. But it’s hard not to imagine him getting some wide-open looks when teams try to double-team Kaminsky next season. So my prediction is that there will be threes next year.

Nigel the Entertainer

No recap of Nigel Hayes’s freshman season would be complete without mentioning his hilarious performance as “Nigel Burgundy” in a series of YouTube videos during the Badgers’ Final Four run. This guy is a true character, and I’m glad we can look forward to three more years of his antics on and off the court.