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March Madness 2016: 'Little things' sparked Wisconsin's win over Pittsburgh, but more needed against Xavier

Wisconsin's offensive performance against Pittsburgh in the first round was not exactly pleasant to the eyes. What won the game for the Badgers was doing what forward Nigel Hayes calls "the little things." It will take that same thing--plus hitting shots--to beat Xavier.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS, MO. -- Nigel Hayes, noted renaissance man, may or may not listen to One Direction.

Either way, his consistent use of one phrase could also double as a season-long plug for one of the pop band's most popular songs: "Little Things".

From the home loss to Western Illinois in the season opener, to the 1-4 start in Big Ten play, to the eventual turnaround of the entire team, Hayes has driven home the importance of doing what he refers to as "the little things" to his Wisconsin Badgers teammates.

It was no different in Wisconsin's 47-43 NCAA tournament first round win over Pittsburgh on Friday: do those minuscule, sometimes unnoticed plays that don't show up or "pop" in the post-game highlights to win, and the Badgers will be alright.

"It's something I've always told the guys: it's the little things that will separate you from a win and a loss," Hayes said in the locker room after the game.

Against the Panthers, his teammates must have listened. The Badgers struggled offensively, with Hayes chief among that cause, and only shot 32.1 percent. They scored 16 first half points, including six through just under the first 14 minutes of the contest. Out of 19 attempted threes, only four went down.

Yet they still won.

"You may always make shots, you may not," Hayes said. "Today, we weren't the best three-point shooting team. But, I told them, if we took care of the little things that would be the difference."

It's such a great basketball press conference term. Little things. You say it, and everyone's ears perk up and suddenly you're a dog waiting for a bone as your treat. But what exactly fits under the umbrella of this concept of the "little things" that the Badgers are so prone to talk about?

The answer lies within Wisconsin's win over the Panthers.

Defensive rebounding. Winning 50/50 balls. Scrapping for control taps and offensive boards. Winning the free throw margin. Making strong, smart passes. Hustling. Limiting turnovers.

Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard has more than his fair share of favorite sayings, but one in particular fits here. It doesn't take talent to make the hustle plays. So many of Hayes' "little things" fit into that.

At no point did the Badgers execute on the little things more than on two plays in the closing minutes.

Trailing 40-39, guard Bronson Koenig's layup didn't fall. The ball was tapped around before guard Zak Showalter beat out a group of Panthers to control tap it to Koenig in the corner. He then passed to forward Vitto Brown at the top of the key for a wide-open three. Money.

Wisconsin never trailed again.

Showalter didn't get any credit for any part of that play in the box score, but kept the play alive that led to the tide-turning shot.

The Ph.D. in Little Things-ology made the other play that stands out. With the Badgers up by two points with two seconds remaining, forward Ethan Happ missed his second free throw. Insert Hayes.

Situated low on the right block when Happ's free throw went up, Hayes beat the Panthers defender to the outside, and, thanks in part to a favorable bounce off the rim, came down with the rebound.

"We didn’t know if we wanted him to miss it or make it," Hayes said. "So I told him, 'Let’s just play it out.' If he makes it, perfect. If he misses it, perfect. We’ll just try to smack the ball out of the air and run the clock out.

"It took a very, very fortunate bounce and I was able to work my way around another foot and grab the ball."

On a night when they shot 32.1 percent, the Badgers won with defense and hustle.

"I'm extremely proud how they worked and battled and keep finding a way," Gard said. "And that's obviously this time of year you find a way to get things done and move on to what's next."

Wisconsin will need to do more against potent Xavier squad

What exactly is next? Oh yeah. The second-seeded Xavier Musketeers.

Newsflash for Badgers fans: Xavier is not Pittsburgh.

As Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports put it after the Musketeers toppled then-No. 1 Villanova in February, Xavier is "really good:"

"Potentially Final Four good, for the first time in school history. Maybe even national title good, if the basketball gods smile upon them."

The Musketeers boast first-team All-Big East guard and USA Today's third-team All-American Trevon Bluiett. Guard J.P. Macura was the Big East's sixth man of the year. Guard Myles Davis can stroke it from deep. 6'10, 240-pound forward James Farr can throw his body around in the post.

Forward Jalen Reynolds threw down one of the top dunks of the tournament. Guard Edmond Sumner was on the Big East's All-Freshman team. Guard Remy Abell rounds out the rotation with strong senior leadership.

And then there's the coach, Chris Mack, who was voted National Coach of the Year by the U.S. Basketball Writer's Association bringing everything together.

The little things? Yes, Wisconsin will definitely need to keep doing those to pull off the upset. But it's the big things that will also be equally important.

Shooting 17-53 from the field and 4-19 against Xavier's zone defense won't be nearly enough to advance to the Sweet 16.

Xavier isn't Pittsburgh.