The Wisconsin Badgers men's basketball program has been a model of maintained excellence for the past several years. The team has enjoyed numerous Big Ten titles and deep tournament runs, while featuring some of the brightest personalities in college basketball. None seem to compare to Nigel Hayes.
Since joining the Badgers, Hayes has made a name for himself off the court through his popular "Hayes For Days" videos as well as the occasional photobomb of teammates and coach Bo Ryan. However, it is Hayes' performance on the court that is drawing so much attention this season.
Heading into the 2014-25 season, it came as no surprise that the Badgers were expected to have a great team. With multiple stars from last season's Final Four run returning, such as Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Traevon Jackson, Wisconsin was ranked third in the AP Top 25 to start the season. While it was expected that those like Kaminsky and Dekker would be responsible for the Badgers' sustained success, it was easy to overlook the dramatic strides Hayes was quietly making over the offseason.
To set the stage, let's look back to last season. As a freshman, Hayes posted solid numbers off the bench: 7.7 points and 2.8 rebounds per game, plus a field goal percentage of .510. Hayes provided enough of a spark off the bench to earn the Big Ten’s Sixth Man of the Year award and a spot on the conference All-Freshman team. Needless to say, Hayes showed great promise as a freshman.
In the offseason, it is not uncommon to hear of players going to extreme lengths in order to improve their game, both physically and mentally. However, the work ethic Hayes displayed this past summer was second to none. In a press conference following Wisconsin’s victory over Tennessee-Chattanooga, Ryan explained just how dedicated Hayes was this past summer:
Hayes was in the gym almost every day, lifting weights, running, getting up shots, working on hand-eye coordination, and doing just about anything else that comes to mind. According to Jesse Temple of Fox Sports Wisconsin, when Hayes was asked how many shots he took this offseason he responded saying, "How many times did you blink this offseason?"
All the shots Hayes took over the summer seem to have paid off, as he has drastically improved his shooting range. Hayes is now capable of consistently hitting shots from beyond the arc, giving Wisconsin another forward capable of stretching the floor, and ultimately more flexibility on offense.
Thus far, all reports are true as Hayes' statistics have increased in nearly every category this season. Hayes has increased his numbers up to 11.7 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, and he is shooting 56.8 percent from the field, including 7-of-20 on three-pointers on the season.
Obviously, there is always room for improvement, specifically with Hayes at the free throw line, in the post and in big-game situations. For example, Hayes sputtered against Arizona and Kentucky in last year's tournament run. When facing Duke on Dec. 3 at the Kohl Center, Hayes' numbers were underwhelming, as he went just 1-of-5 from the floor with four points. On the other end, the Blue Devils were driving through the lane at will when they had the ball. If the Badgers want to have any chance at cutting down the nets in April, Hayes needs to assert his presence more on the defensive end.
While these flaws are concerning, they shouldn't keep Badgers fans up at night. Hayes is improving every day and there is no limit to the type of player that he can become. It is abundantly clear that Hayes has an extremely bright future, one which hopefully contains a national championship for the Badgers.
As the season continues to unfold, keep an eye on Hayes because he continues to be one special player.