It’s a great spring for those of us that root for Wisconsin basketball. Nigel Hayes removed his name from the NBA draft and will return to Madison for his senior season. It wasn’t an unexpected decision—Hayes has a good head on his shoulders and he wasn’t going to be a lottery pick—but it was still a relief. Because the Badgers are now loaded for another run at a Big Ten title and maybe, come March, a third Final Four appearance in four years.
Wisconsin went through growing pains in the early part of last season. Head coach Bo Ryan retired in December and left the program in the hands of longtime assistant Greg Gard. The Badgers were 9-9 at one point and even a winning season was in jeopardy.
Then Gard and the young lineup all came together and it became a fun end to the year. They finished the regular season 20-11, tied for fourth in the Big Ten and then won two games in the NCAA Tournament, including a buzzer-beater over Xavier that made “One Shining Moment.”
Everybody was coming back and regardless of what Hayes did, the Badgers were going to be a pretty good team. Bronson Koenig, the point guard and sharpshooter who won the Xavier game is back. So is Zach Showalter, the two-guard who’s a bundle of energy and the type of role player every team needs.
Small forward Vitto Brown was coming into his own as an excellent player with an old-fashioned perimeter jumper form inside the arc. And freshman center Ethan Happ was the best young big man in the conference and had no one in Wisconsin regretting losing Diamond Stone to Maryland.
This core four would make Wisconsin a solid NCAA Tournament team and dark-horse contender for the Big Ten title. But if they wanted to be truly in the elite of the conference with a chance at national glory, they needed a big-time alpha dog. That’s where Nigel Hayes’ return was so essential.
Hayes had growing pains of his own last season. He was an outstanding role player in the back-to-back Final Four years of 2014-15, playing in the shadow of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. Being “the man” didn’t go as smoothly for him as many thought. The numbers were good enough—16 points/6 rebounds, but the efficiency wasn’t there. Hayes shot 37 percent from the floor and the normally good three-point shooter slipped to below 30 percent from behind the arc. Hayes then played poorly in the NCAA Tournament.
So why am I excited as he coming back? Because the talent is still there. The work ethic and character are still there. Just as freshman have a transition period in becoming college players, Hayes had a transition in moving from role player to star. He’s more than capable of taking that next step this season and with his talent, to be a lottery pick in the 2017 NBA draft. It was the right decision for his own career. And it was a great decision for Wisconsin basketball. I’m ready for November to get here.