Nigel Hayes is a name that will be remembered on the UW-Madison campus for years to come. A hard working, charming and bright young man, Hayes has made a lasting impact both on and off the court during his four years at Wisconsin. Entering tonight’s tournament game vs. Virginia Tech, Nigel will know that it could be his last game as a Badger. Whether Hayes walks off the court a winner or loser, boasting a great performance or not, every Badger fan ought to appreciate the things he has done during his time in Madison.
Any longtime Badger basketball fan knows Coach Bo wouldn’t give playing time to just any freshman, you had to earn it. Most freshman spent their first season watching and learning from the bench as the upperclassmen ran the swing offense and stingy defense that Wisconsin is so famous for, but Nigel got his chance early. After a debut in which he committed four fouls in eight minutes during a win over St. John’s at the Kohl Center, Hayes found himself receiving little playing time and it resulted in pretty low production for the majority of non-conference play. That would all change when then the Big Ten season started.
At Northwestern in Wisconsin’s first game of conference play, Hayes showed Badger faithful that he was the real-deal, scoring 19 points on 8/12 shooting while stuffing the stat sheet with six rebounds, three assists and two steals to go with it in a dominant win. From that game on, his role off the bench grew, and he became the x-factor Wisconsin needed on their way to a fantastic season. Although Wisconsin fell short in their first Final Four since 2000, losing 74-73 in a heartbreaker to college basketball powerhouse Kentucky, fans knew that the Badgers’ future was bright.
Wisconsin exploded onto the scene in 2014-2015, going 12-1 in non-conference play with Hayes in the starting lineup alongside experienced stars Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. In the third game of the season, Nigel went off for 25 points against Green Bay to set a new career high and added 11 rebounds for good measure. It was becoming clear that he was a budding star in the program. The winningest season in Badger history turned out to be a great one for Nigel, as the sophomore averaged 12 points and six rebounds while shooting 50% from the field and 40% from the three point line. Wisconsin made a miraculous run through the tournament and “made ‘em believe” en route to another Final Four.
On their way, the nation fell in love with Wisconsin’s fun and lively roster. Hayes went viral online after discovering that the stenographer had to transcribe each interview, and decided to make things difficult by throwing out big words to challenge them. He later made headlines for his charm during press conferences after embarrassingly being overheard whispering to his teammates that the stenographer was beautiful, sending the whole room into fits of laughter. Nigel has always had a way with words, and created lasting memories during his now famous interviews.
So in the Final Four, who was waiting? None other than the Kentucky Wildcats, in what was set to be a rematch of giants. Kentucky was 38-0 and seemed to be a team of destiny. Wisconsin was 35-3 and had Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky leading the way. The whole world seemed to be cheering for the Badgers, who were seen as the ultimate underdogs despite it being a matchup of two one-seed teams. The ball tipped and a game that will go down as one of the best games in college basketball history began. The Badgers fought hard, and Nigel played a much larger role than he had the season before as a freshman. At halftime, the game was deadlocked at 36 and the tension around the college basketball world grew as the “upset” seemed to be brewing.
The second half proved to be just as tight as the first, and with just under three minutes to play Wisconsin had the ball and trailed by two. After a series of missed shots by the team and offensive rebounds by Hayes, he was able to get a putback layup to tie the game. After a huge defensive stop, Sam Dekker hit one of the biggest shots in Badger basketball history with a filthy stepback three pointer that sent chills down fans’ spines. Wisconsin would go on to win the game, getting their revenge on Kentucky and heading to an appearance in the National Championship game.
Although Wisconsin lost a nailbiter against Duke in the championship, that team will be remembered forever. Hayes played a crucial role throughout the season, and his NBA draft stock skyrocketed as a result. Frank Kaminsky was set to graduate and fellow star Sam Dekker decided to forego his senior season at Wisconsin as the two set out to play in the NBA. Many fans expected Nigel would pack his bags up and join the two of them in the NBA, but looking to improve on his game and continue his education, Hayes decided to stay at UW.
During his junior season, Hayes broke out as the leading scorer on the team. While Wisconsin lacked the starpower they had cherished over the last two seasons, they still had high expectations for the year ahead of them. After a rough 7-5 start to the season, longtime head coach Bo Ryan stepped away from the team, retiring effective immediately and thrusting longtime assistant Greg Gard into the spotlight as head coach. Gard seemed like the perfect fit as Bo’s replacement, and Hayes’ leadership helped make the transition easier. Wisconsin lost four of their first six games under coach Gard, but responded nicely from then onwards by winning 11 of their next 14 games and heading into the NCAA tournament with a seven seed. Hayes averaged 16 points, six rebounds and three assists during the season and was awarded the Big Ten Player of the Year award. Wisconsin would again make some noise in the tournament, defeating Pitt in a tight opening round game before upsetting second-seeded Xavier at the buzzer thanks to a Bronson Koenig three pointer. The Badgers advanced to their third straight Sweet 16 and faced Notre Dame, but this time found themselves on the wrong end of another very close game, losing 61-56.
Following the loss, Nigel again decided to return to UW, this time as an established senior. Perhaps more important to campus than his game performances, Hayes made statements calling for change in Madison’s community, as well as throughout the rest of the nation. After an incident at a Badger football game in which a fan had shown Barack Obama being hung in a noose, Hayes posted a letter on Twitter calling out for action. In the letter, he spoke about the racism that student athletes face not only from opposing fans, but from their fellow students who assume that they are unqualified to study at UW Madison and were simply admitted to the University based on their athletic abilities. Shortly after posting the letter, which received thousands of retweets and likes, Hayes and teammate Jordan Hill took action during the national anthem of a game against Central Arkansas. The two took a step behind the rest of the team as the national anthem played, protesting the racial injustices on campus and demanding change. It was clear at this point that Nigel was no longer a shy freshman basketball player. He had grown into a strong minded, mature senior student and leader at UW, who just-so-happened to be a star on the basketball team.
Hayes has had a bit of a “down year” compared to last season, but has still averaged 14 points, seven rebounds and three assists for the Badgers. Wisconsin finished second in the conference behind only Purdue, and were runner-ups in the Big Ten tournament after falling to Michigan in the championship game. Hayes was named Third-Team All Big Ten for the regular season, and was also awarded with a spot on the All Tournament Team for his performances in the Big Ten tournament last weekend. Wisconsin was criminally underseeded by the NCAA tournament’s selection committee, receiving an eight seed despite an impressive 25-9 record. Much of Badger Nation was blown away by the seeding, but the team will remain calm.
Hayes and the other three senior starters, along with sophomore standout Ethan Happ, will leave it all on the court tonight against Virginia Tech, and that is all the fans can ask for.
Whether he has a great tournament or not, there is no denying Nigel’s personal success as a Badger. Hayes is fourth all-time in scoring at Wisconsin, and first all time in free throws after passing Alando Tucker earlier this season. He is a part of the winningest senior class of all time at UW, and is one of the greatest players in the team’s history. Of course Nigel is focused on leading the Badgers deep into March once again, but his legacy will live on forever, no matter what happens in this year’s NCAA tournament.