Badgers rejuvenated after time off

Sam Dekker (left) and teammate Josh Gasser celebrate a dunk during Wisconsin's 76-67 win over Oral Roberts at the Kohl Center.

Mary Langenfeld/Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

MADISON, Wis. — Most of Wisconsin’s basketball players didn’t know what to do with themselves after being given four days off for the holidays this week. Some stayed off their feet, watching TV and spending time with family. Others returned to their high school gyms for light shoot-arounds or weightlifting sessions to stay sharp for the second half of the Badgers’ season.

No matter how players spent their time, all agreed it served as a welcome reprieve for the body and the mind.

"I think we’re all rejuvenated," Badgers guard Josh Gasser said. "That’s the big thing. At the beginning of the year, we were all hyped and ready to go. Throughout a long season, you can kind of lose some of that. So being able to go home and come back, I think we can gain some of that momentum back."

No. 4 Wisconsin (12-0) cranks back into high gear when it plays host to Prairie View A&M (2-9) at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Kohl Center. It will mark the Badgers’ first game in 14 days — following finals and the holiday break.

Wisconsin players practiced Saturday morning and then returned home for the next four days. They were not required to come back to Madison until Thursday, when the Badgers held their first practice in preparation for the Panthers.

"We’re not used to having three, four days off here," Badgers forward Sam Dekker said. "But it was really good to be home and be with family and loved ones. Just realize what’s important in life again. And realize that your life’s not all basketball. So it’s good to kick your feet up, relax, watch some basketball, watch some football, just be with family. It was good, but I think we’re refocused now and reenergized physically and ready to go."

Dekker said he spent one day at the gym on his break, working at Sheboygan Lutheran with his father (and former high school coach) Todd. Gasser watched his old high school team at Port Washington practice over break. He also shot free throws and lifted weights.

Players were advised by Badgers trainer Henry Perez-Guerra to stay off their feet as much as possible over the break.

Perhaps no player worked harder during the break than freshman forward Nigel Hayes, who admitted his first few months through a college season had ruffled his trust in his own talents.

"My confidence hasn’™t been as high since I’ve been here because my shot hasn’™t been falling," Hayes said. "When that hasn’t been falling, it’s messed with me mentally. It’s kind of inhibited me to do things that I normally would do well. It’s made me think too much, which causes turnovers and to not play as well as I could."

Hayes has appeared in every game and averaged 14.5 minutes, 5.1 points and 1.7 rebounds in a reserve role. But he is shooting 60.5 percent from the free throw line and 48.7 percent from the field. As a high school senior, he shot 72.0 percent from the charity stripe and 54.0 percent from the field.

Hayes said he spent considerable time over break with Bruce Smith, his former high school coach at Whitmer High in Toledo, Ohio. Together, they worked on fixing Hayes’ shot.

"My high school coach, he coined it that I’m a high-maintenance shooter," Hayes said. "Which means that if he’s not breathing down my neck or I’m not checking in with him once a week to make sure I’m doing things right, I tend to pick up bad habits. And then as much as I like to shoot, I’m in here all the time, if I picked up a bad habit, in about a week it’ll become natural as much as I shoot. That’™s what happened. He corrected things back.

"I’ve just got to make sure that I’m conscious every time I shoot a shot, like the great ones in the NBA do. Ray Allen, the great ones shoot a shot the same way every time. So I just need to make sure I concentrate and shoot the same way every time."

Wisconsin’s game on Saturday represents the final nonconference opponent of the regular season. The Badgers will open Big Ten play Jan. 2 at Northwestern, presumably with an undefeated record still intact. And players say they’re refreshed and ready for the grind to come.

"I love the way our schedule works out this year," Gasser said. "We had some off time for finals, so we could kind of focus on that stuff, finish out our schoolwork. And we were able to get home for a few days and be with our families and kind of relax and then come back and not just be thrown into Big Ten play. We get a game to where we can kind of feel ourselves out again.

"I’m ready for Big Ten season. It’s been a long nonconference year. We’ve taken care of business so far. I’m just excited to see what we can do in Big Ten play."

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