This is the last go around for one of the most accomplished players in Wisconsin basketball history. Nigel Hayes could have just one game, obviously, or as many as four left in his college career.
At the end of last year, Hayes tested the NBA waters, but ultimately decided to return for his senior year. Thereafter, the pre-season accolades rolled in. The media selected Hayes as their Big Ten’s Preseason Player of the Year. Caleb Swanigan deservedly won Big Ten Player of the Year, and Hayes finished on the All-Big Ten’s third team.
Although inconsistent at times, Hayes’ season is still a successful one, particularly when we measure it by wins and his performance in March. More than flashy individual accolades, team performance ought to be his enduring legacy.
I thought we could start by looking at backward a bit at Hayes’ career, just a short detour. And, then we’ll jump to the present to talk about his performance in the NCAA Tournament and what lies ahead.
Wisconsin as a program tends to gradually ease younger players into the rotation. Hayes contributed almost right away though, and played in 38 games on a team that made the Final Four.
And, his career’s not over; so far, he’s scored 1,835 points, collected 796 rebounds and dished 317 assists. More importantly than the statistics, the Badgers have gone 115-34 overall and 52-20 in the Big Ten during Hayes’ four years.
Hayes has also scored 166 points in the NCAA Tournament, which is the most of any active player. He’ll have an opportunity to add to that total on Friday when Wisconsin meets Florida.
Those four years include four Sweet Sixteen appearances, two Final Fours and one NCAA title game. But, all those runs ended short of the elusive championship.
-The Villanova Game.
Hayes’ Jordan-shake, reverse layup against Villanova will probably go down as one of the more iconic plays in Wisconsin basketball history. It capped a 19-point, eight rebound game for him.
The Badgers needed his performance badly too, because Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ were out with foul trouble for most of the second half. Those two combined played 50 minutes, while Hayes logged 39.
For all his struggles and noted flaws, he’s been remarkably consistent and reliable. His evolution into a number one option on a championship team was not smooth, and really, that’s not his strength anyway. Game-to-game, Hayes can provide whatever the team needs most.
-What Can He Do Against Florida?
Florida’s going to be a tough match up for Wisconsin. The Gators are ranked third, according to KenPom. And, the pace of the game will be interesting to watch because Florida plays fast.
Hayes could have a big impact though, because he’ll match up favorably with an undersized Florida team missing center John Egbunu. He could feast on the offensive glass, and really pound the Gators inside.
KenPom predicts a three-point Gator win, but Hayes has been a part of so many overachieving Wisconsin teams. It feels like he has unfinished business.
Regardless of the outcome, or unmet on court expectations over the last two years, Hayes’ career has happened to align with the four most successful years of Wisconsin basketball. And, he’s not done yet.