During his first two seasons at Wisconsin, Nigel Hayes often chose to deflect any attention sent his way. That wasn’t always the case, of course, as Hayes’ fascination with NCAA Tournament stenographers last spring was a hit with fans and media from around the country.
But much of the time, Hayes steered the focus away from himself and onto someone else. When he was asked questions after a big performance, he’d look into the cameras and say he was just trying to be like Frank or Josh, referring to two of the Badgers’ elder statesmen, Frank Kaminsky and Josh Gasser.
Now, Kaminsky and Gasser are gone. So are Sam Dekker, Traevon Jackson and Duje Dukan, three other key pieces from a Wisconsin team that won a program-record 36 games and advanced to the NCAA title game for the first time in 74 years before falling to Duke.
Hayes will be asked to step into a leadership role as a junior, but he seems poised to take on that extra responsibility. Athlon sat down with Hayes, who averaged 12.4 points and 6.2 rebounds last season.
Were you surprised by all the attention you got during the NCAA Tournament?
For all that stenographer stuff? Kinda sorta, but then after awhile not really. They just loved our team, and I guess it was something for people to talk about. So they kept talking about it. I guess I have one of those personalities that attract people. I guess it worked out perfectly. Thanks to that, they wanted to follow us a little bit more, and they got to see how good of a bunch of guys that we are and how close of a team we were. But I didn’t expect any of that to happen at all. It kind of got carried away a little bit. But as they say in Hollywood, any publicity is good publicity.
What was the funniest moment last season? Years from now, when you look back on the season, will there be a go-to story that shows how loose this team was?
It may not be appropriate right now to say, so that just goes to show what kind of team we were. We had some good guys.
Have you watched the video of the loss to Duke in the NCAA Tournament title game?
I have not.
Do you plan to?
No, not too painful. It’s just that I think I know personally what I could have and should have done better. Usually after games, you can watch film and you can see what you did wrong. But when it’s a loss that big, as soon as the game is over, the first 38 things you say to yourself is, ‘Damn, I should have done this, this, that, that, that and that,’ because you remember the entire game play by play.
What’s No. 1 on the list?
I missed two layups, I think. I missed two free throws, I think. I didn’t help over once on Tyus (Jones) curling to the rim for a wide-open layup. I could just go down the list of what I did wrong, so there’s no need to go back and watch it again.
Why did you go to Wisconsin?
When I was being recruited during my junior year, I was always told to go to the place that loves you the most and you’ll be the happiest. And here we are. I’m pretty happy, and these two years haven’t been too shabby.
Where would you have gone if you hadn’t chosen Wisconsin?
I really liked Stanford a lot. Being from Ohio, I always wanted to go to Ohio State, but I definitely liked Stanford. You can’t go wrong with a Stanford degree or the connections that you create at Stanford. And then the California atmosphere, that was just a pretty good place to be.
You lived alone last year, right?
I still do.
How come? That’s pretty rare.
I was going to live with a couple of guys and I was like, ‘You know, I’m way too clean and precise to live with other people.’ I can afford it now, so here I am by myself, and it’s been great. I’m my own best friend. It’s clean.
There can’t be many 20-year-old guys on campus who are that concerned about keeping their apartment clean.
People have said I have moderate OCD, which I guess would make my mother proud because she raised us to be clean. She would definitely be proud to hear that. What’s ironic, though, is I’m messy at home (in Toledo, Ohio) because I think that she’ll clean it up. But when I’m on my own, she raised me right. I can take care of myself.
Ever get lonely in the apartment, though?
Not at all. I usually read, and reading can take you places as they say. When you’re engaged in a book, there’s no such thing as lonely.
What book are you reading now?
I’m almost finished with the Malcolm X autobiography.
How do you expect your role to change this season?
I probably will have to shoot the ball more and, man, I know players hate when they have to do that. (Smiles) So I’ll probably have to shoot the ball more. I’ll probably have to become more of a vocal leader. Last year, we never had a true vocal leader; it was kind of a collective thing. But this year with all the inexperience we have, I think I may definitely have to evolve into the role of a vocal leader.
The known commodities on this team are you and junior point guard Bronson Koenig. Do you expect some of the lesser-known guys — junior forward Vitto Brown, redshirt freshman forward Ethan Happ, sophomore guard Jordan Hill — to emerge this season?
I definitely expect them to, and if we want to have any type of season that we’ve been accustomed to these past two years, they’re going to have to. And I think they’ll be ready for it. They’ve been working hard this offseason.
Were you surprised when Bo Ryan announced he’d retire following the 2015-16 season?
Surprised? Not really. I know he’s on the old side of things. He’s been doing this for a while. And I’m sure it’s caught up to him, all the obligations and engagements that he has to do. But if he’s doing it because he’s had his fair share of it, then all you can do is tip your hat to him and say thank you for your contributions in coaching us so far and best of luck. But I just have this weird feeling that he’s not going to be done. I just don’t see him having anything else to do or anything else that he loves as much to do besides coach basketball.
So you think he could change his mind between now and the end of the season?
I personally think so, yeah. He has a great life here — he walks outside, and he’s treated like royalty. What better life can you ask for? Coaching Wisconsin, people love you, fans love you, the world loves you. Pretty good life right there.
(Ed. Note: This interview was conducted in July, before reports indicated Ryan may not retire at the end of the season. Hayes may have been correct in his assumption that Ryan is not done.)
If this is it, do you expect him to change much this year?
He’ll still be the same old Bo. Lots of expletives, lots of anger and lots of crouching.
What is your favorite place to play in the Big Ten, other than the Kohl Center?
I’ve never been to Michigan State, so I don’t know how that is. That could be in there. I really don’t have a favorite place to play at.
Do you have a least favorite place to play?
Probably Penn State. I don’t want this to go bad — it probably will — but it’s just because we’re used to an atmosphere at our home games where there are more people and we can feed off the energy. When you play at Penn State, there’s not as many people there at the game, so we have to play off our own team energy. Which is fine. It’s just not as much of a full, exciting environment as we’re accustomed to.
What coach in the league would you like to play for, other than Bo Ryan?
Coach (Mark) Turgeon (of Maryland) was my coach for the first couple of days at the Pan-Am Games (tryouts). He seemed like pretty good people. So I guess just by default, since he’s the only other one I’ve ever been coached by, it’d be him.
Who was the toughest player you had to guard last season?
For me, it probably would have been my mismatch with (Maryland’s) Dez Wells. I pride myself on defense, and I’m usually able to guard 1 through 5 for the most part, but he was just that perfect combination of, ‘I can get around Nigel,’ and whatever he had together, he had it. That right there was definitely the toughest for me personally.
Who was the toughest defender who guarded you?
Probably Willie (Cauley-Stein) from Kentucky. That’s always been his staple. He’s 7-foot and he can move like a guard, so you can just see the problems that would create.