The Wisconsin Badgers have maintained an undefeated start to their season relying heavily on their core players. All five starters average over 27 minutes per game. The only remaining bench players getting consistent minutes are Bronson Koenig (16.2 min/game) and Nigel Hayes (14.5 min/game). The consistent and all around team play, especially by the starting five, has proven the Badgers to be unstoppable so far this season.
The key to Wisconsin's success so far has been implementing many three guard sets, with Josh Gasser typically playing a sort of small forward role. All players on the court have adequately had to pass, shoot, and rebound from anywhere on the floor. The ability of Wisconsin's guards to win rebounds inside has allowed these smaller lineups to have success, as Ben Brust, Traevon Jackson and Gasser collectively average nearly 15 rebounds per game.
Wisconsin's discipline and tempo allow for lower possessions per game and less team fouls. The only instance so far in which Bo Ryan has had to deep into his bench because of foul trouble was in the Dec. 7 game against Marquette. In that game, both Kaminsky and Hayes were charged with two fouls in the middle of the first half, forcing Ryan to call on Evan Anderson and Zach Bohannon to fill some time up front. Other than this game, the Badgers have not faced much foul trouble or a need to keep the starters off of the floor for a significant time.
All of this is likely to change, however, come conference play. The bigger and stronger Big Ten forwards will cause more instances of foul trouble for Wisconsin's big men, and will require a bigger role for Hayes and the forwards altogether. The Badgers will certainly still stick with what has been working, using many three guard sets and relying to team defense and rebounding, but Hayes' role as a forward coming off the bench is on the rise. The more physically demanding Big Ten competition will necessitate more rest for the starters, will cause more foul trouble situations, and will require an increased use of formations with only two guards on the floor.
Hayes' play has been solid for a freshman in Bo Ryan's system, but he certainly has room to improve. He has shown signs of aggressiveness, but he still needs some time to get comfortable with his role and with the pace of play. He was impressive in his start to the season, logging eight points in 18 minutes in Wisconsin's home opener against Florida. His best game came in Wisconsin's final contest against Eastern Kentucky before their two week winter break, when he scored 17 points in only 14 minutes, while making 13 of 17 free throws.
Hayes' biggest red flags come from a lack of rebounding production, and from his foul numbers. Hayes pulls in 4.6 rebounds per 40 minutes played, which would ideally be much higher for one of the biggest players on the team. Some of this is probably due to the distribution of rebounding across the team, but the best way for Hayes to help the team is to be a force inside, pulling in rebounds consistently. The guards will have an increasingly difficult time contributing to the rebounding effort during conference play, and the role of a true big man like Hayes will become more and more important.
In over half of Hayes' games played, he has committed three or more fouls. In itself, this isn't incredibly alarming or problematic, but it may be a sign of discomfort and uncertainty for Hayes. He has at times looked a little bit lost in the interior, not sure of the best move to make. If his role on this team increases, he will have to be confident and assertive on both ends of the court. Bo Ryan will not be able to rely on him if he poses a threat to commit a foul or make a mistake due to uneasiness in a big moment in a given game.
Free throws have also been a problem for Hayes thus far. Going into the Dec. 12 game against Eastern Kentucky, Hayes had made only 10-21 free throws. This is a glaring concern if Coach Ryan wants to expand his role in key situations, as he is really the only deficient free throw shooter on this squad. It seems that his inability to make shots from the line has caused a bit of timidness in his game, possibly playing with less aggressiveness because he doesn't want to go to the line and miss his shots. If this is the case, he will have to ignore this tendency, and stay as aggressive as possible, because with his size and athletic ability he can be a tremendous asset offensively and defensively. His 13-17 effort from the line in Wisconsin's most recent game is certainly a good sign, and should give him renewed confidence.
Looking ahead, Hayes knows what he needs to do to be a role player for this team. He needs to provide a significant inside presence in support of Frank Kaminsky. He clearly has the talent and size to develop into a fantastic player in Bo Ryan's system. He must remain aggressive yet controlled as he gets matched up against the punishing Big Ten forwards. He definitely can be more than just a substitute, as his .487 FG% indicates his offensive skill working from the low block. However he will be forced to move out of his comfort zone offensively and defensively, filling various roles in this system. If he can stay confident and disciplined, he will provide invaluable minutes in relief of Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. There will certainly be conference games in which one or both of these players are in foul trouble, or even are sidelined with an injury. When these moments come, it will be up to Nigel Hayes to fill in and contribute, or allow the team to suffer.
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