Given the rapid improvement Nigel Hayes has shown in his shooting and ballhandling ability over his first two years in Madison, it's not a shock to consider Hayes a perimeter player at this point. What is amazing is that he might be Wisconsin's most consistent three-point threat from the wing this season.
The candidates for the starting shooting guard spot all lacked experience, but Zak Showalter lacked it less. Not unlike his predecessor Josh Gasser, Showy's hustle, grit and defense won him the nod. Bench minutes on the perimeter will be fun to observe, with some exciting young players in the mix potentially.
Starter: Nigel Hayes, 6-8, Jr.
When I think back to when Hayes burst onto the scene as a freshman, I'm pretty sure I didn't envision his future this way. Not because he has blossomed into a preseason All-American candidate. No, his talent was always apparent. The evolution of his game has been striking. Thanks to Wisconsin's success during his time here, Hayes' tireless work ethic, disregard for sleep and quirky personality have all been well-chronicled in the media. He's positioned himself to become a first-round NBA draft pick after the season if he wants. With that goal in mind, the expansion of his game was necessary, not optional.
In his 12th collegiate game, Hayes sank 13-of-17 free throws en route to 17 points against Eastern Kentucky. Three weeks later in the infamous Frantrum game, I watched giddily from my seat as Hayes battered Iowa from the low block, drawing five trips to the free throw line seemingly at will. The Hawkeyes had no answer. We all thought we were witnessing the second coming of Danny Jones (look up the name kids). Hayes wasn't satisfied with that however.
Hayes added a deadly three-point shot last season, making 40 of his 101 attempts. That total comprised 30 percent of his total field goal attempts, a number that might rise this season. His free throw accuracy went up 16 percentage points as a sophomore; another increase like that would but him at over 90 percent. Almost every statistical aspect of Hayes' game saw improvement. Except two: assist rate and free throw rate.
Key number: 7 - The number of times Hayes has record double-digit free throw attempts in a game.
You have to go back to Alando Tucker to find a Badger who was able to get to the line so prolifically. Yet as UW's strengths shift this season, a younger generation of post players will be taking up space in the lane. We will see more isolation for Nigel and two-man sets with Bronson Koenig. Probably fewer parades to the charity stripe.
As a freshman, Hayes struggled against the biggest and lengthiest athletes in the tournament and thus, efficiently took more of what the defense gave him last year. This year is about Hayes taking what he wants. How do you combat length? Step-backs would be one tool, taking guys off the dribble is another. We saw a classic example with his game-winning shot over Vitto Brown in the Red & White Scrimmage. As Hayes continues to diversify, my guess is he'll become more of a creator next to Koenig. So even if he takes a lower percentage of trips to the free throw line, watch that assist rate.
Can Hayes add these elements effectively against real opponents? I would not bet against him.
Starter: Zak Showalter, 6-2, RS-Jr.
This year will be challenging for Showalter as he steps up from bit player to trusted contributor. Along with Ethan Happ, Vitto Brown, and the freshmen forward, Showalter will attempt to fill Gasser's shoes as the guys who do some of the dirty work on the court, like diving for loose balls, taking charges and so forth. Another reason Bo Ryan feels comfortable starting Showalter at off-guard is his free throw shooting. The Germantown native led the team a year ago by sinking 24-of-27 freebies (89%).
Showalter proved his value in eye-opening fashion against the top athletes in the college game during Wisconsin's run to a second consecutive Final Four, making several keys hustle plays against North Carolina and Arizona. But he also shined against Oregon and in a mid-season trounce over Indiana in which he scored a season-high nine points in 14 minutes.
Key number: 16.6% - Showalter's career three-point shooting percentage
Alarming? Yes. But Showalter's shot and his comfort level both look improved. He doesn't need to be Ben Brust, he just needs to keep defenses honest. He recently paced the team with 19 points in the scrimmage against Northern Iowa in Dubuque last Saturday.
Reserve: Khalil Iverson, 6-5, Fr.
This kid's story is remarkable, as he went from losing his 43-year-old father a year ago this month to holding offers from just Bowling Green and North Carolina-Asheville to committing to Wisconsin in February. Iverson displays athletic gifts and a relentlessness reminiscent of a young Alando Tucker. Like the Badgers' all-time leading scorer, Iverson lacked a consistent jumper when he arrived, something will likely be a work in progress over the next couple of seasons. But he's already forced his way into the rotation it seems as something of an exciting four-tool baseball player. Wisconsin will need his 6-10 wingspan and defensive acumen if nothing else. But let's be serious: dreams of alley-oops are already swirling in our heads.
Reserve: Riley Dearring, 6-5, RS-So.
There's no question Riley Dearring failed to find a niche last season, but why should that be so concerning? Not every freshman can be a Hayes or Koenig -- on two of the greatest teams in school history after all. After showing signs of life in the exhibition versus UW-River Falls, it will be fascinating to see if Dearring can force Bo Ryan to give him minutes as a situational shooter, the kind that can be deployed for short stretches to diffuse a zone and then dissolve into the night. Theoretically he has a skill set that not many healthy players on this team has. A rise in Dearring's defensive awareness is the only route.
Reserve: Brevin Pritzl, 6-3, Fr.
On August 1, Pritzl suffered a broken left foot from which he still hasn't fully recovered. Now lagging behind the other freshmen in both conditioning and time spent practicing Ryan's defensive principles, Pritzl will have to seriously consider taking a redshirt this season. He'll try to catch up as quickly as possible, but I'm not holding out hope that he can be ready. The injury truly was a shame because Pritzl really could have made an impact offensively if he'd been at full speed all semester.
Aaron Moesch, 6-8, RS-So.
T.J. Schlundt, 6-5, RS-Fr.
Will Decorah, 6-4, Jr.
Redshirting: Matt Ferris, 6-6, So.
What announcers (and your mom) will still be talking about: Nigel's smile; stenographers; Showy's "sneaky" athleticism and propensity for tip dunk attempts
What we should be talking about: what the lack of proven outside threats means for Dearring; how Pritzl could have broken his foot walking to a workout; what NBA jerseys Hayes will look best in