MADISON, Wis. — They don’t make many college freshmen like Nigel Hayes on this planet. That’s the first thing you notice about him as he sits behind a table during the team’s media day: 6-foot-7 and a chiseled 250 pounds of muscle revealing itself from underneath his Wisconsin home white jersey.
Then you hear the stories from teammates about just how difficult he’s been to match up against during pickup games, and it leaves the imagination running wild with possibilities. Hayes, who weighs more than the Badgers’ two centers, hasn’t even played a college game yet. This is only the start.
And what a start it could be for Hayes, in line to see backup forward minutes thanks to the departure of the team’s entire starting frontcourt from a year ago.
“He’s just got to realize that he’s got such a good body that he can bang around and get the rebound whenever he wants,” Badgers sophomore forward Sam Dekker said. “There’s times where he’s been up against me and he’s gone through me and made me look terrible. There’s other times where I’ve just used my length. He doesn’t realize that he could just go through me.
“I’ve tried to talk to him about you are a huge person. Use it and go dunk on some people. There’s been times where he’ll just go through the lane and finish over three guys and we’ll just say, ‘Wow.’ We don’t have a guy like that all the time. If he gets that mentally, that confidence he can do that on the floor, I think he’ll be a big part of what we do.”
Hayes and fellow freshman forward Vitto Brown both represent the future of Wisconsin’s frontcourt, though Hayes appears more polished and ready to contribute immediately. As a senior at Whitmer High School in Toledo, Ohio, Hayes averaged 15.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.2 blocks. He shot 54 percent from the field and was the school’s all-time blocks leader with 163.
Dominating the paint won’t be nearly as easy in the Big Ten, but Hayes is ready for the challenge as the 2013-14 season approaches.
“Like Sam said, I’m a lot bigger and stronger than everyone,” Hayes said. “On defense, that helps me being able to guard. On offense, that helps me being able to score on people. I can move them out of the way and get my way to the rim. I can help the team.”
Dekker and center Frank Kaminsky have starting frontcourt spots locked up. And Hayes’ playing time could be dictated, in part, based on whether Wisconsin chooses to play a three-guard lineup instead of two guards and three frontcourt players, as the Badgers did last season.
Still, it would seem a difficult task to keep Hayes off the court in some capacity while Badgers coach Bo Ryan searches for lineup combinations early in the season.
“Nigel, he’s so gifted,” Badgers guard Zak Showalter said. “If he learns our system like I’m sure he will soon, he could be a star on this team. He’s just got so many spin moves around the basket, so many ways to finish and he’s so strong, he really stands out.”
Hayes is battling for playing time with redshirt junior Duje Dukan, among others. Dukan hasn’t played more than 11 minutes in any game during his college career, but he showed flashes of his scoring ability during Wisconsin’s five-game Canadian exhibition tour in August, averaging 8.8 points per game. Hayes, meanwhile, averaged 2.2 points per game, though he played more minutes than many of the team’s six freshmen.
“I told all of them before this year started, as I put it I said I will definitely be coming for your neck,” Hayes said of the upperclassmen. “Which is a basketball phrase saying wherever you are, I’m going to be right there coming behind you.
“Because the way I look at is if I push them, if I’m coming at them, then they get better and they help the team. So that way when they’re in and they’re starting, I went up against them in practice so the games are easy. For me to get those minutes, I’ve been going against veterans that have done this before, so it should be a piece of cake.”
With such tough talk, does Hayes consider himself a tough guy on the court?
“I wouldn’t consider myself a tough guy,” he said. “I try not to trash talk even though I love trash talking. If trash talking happens, let’s just say I will not shy away from it. You can say that much.”
Hayes noted he already had sought advice from Dekker and point guard Traevon Jackson about how to deal with mental miscues in practice. Like all freshmen, he wants to be perfect, but he must realize the learning curve at the college level will be steep.
“Sam and Traevon, they say just come out and play your game,” Hayes said. “Don’t worry about what coach says. Of course you listen to coach, but if all you do is sit there and listen, you’ll play up tight and that’s when mistakes happen. You’ve got to come out, play loose, relaxed and free, and good things will happen for you.”
More good things are sure to follow for Hayes, This is, after all, only the start.