Rivalry has turned to friendship for Badgers freshmen
MADISON, Wis. — If Vitto Brown is being truthful, he admits his relationship with Nigel Hayes wasn’t exactly warm and fuzzy the first time they met on the basketball court four years ago.
"To be honest, after I played him, I didn’t really like him that much," Brown said. "We were like rivals after our first game. We beat them the first one and then they beat us like every tournament after that."
Hayes corroborates Brown’s story: "That’s a very accurate statement," he said. "We didn’t like one another."
At the time, the two were emerging standouts on the AAU circuit, Brown for the Spiece Indy Heat out of Fort Wayne, Ind., and Hayes for All-Ohio Red. They had not developed into highly coveted Division I prospects just yet. And they had not decided to both attend the University of Wisconsin on basketball scholarships.
In fact, only after each forward committed to the Badgers did they see a real reason to connect despite the two Ohio natives living just 30 minutes away from each other, with Brown starring for Bowling Green High School and Hayes a standout at Whitmer High in Toledo. The two met for the first time away from the court on Feb. 3, when they watched Wisconsin beat Illinois 74-68 on TV, and an article in the local newspaper chronicled their commitments to Wisconsin.
"That was the first time where basketball wasn’t directly involved," Hayes said. "We weren’t in jerseys on the court. We were able to just hang out, meet each other from a non-basketball standpoint, which was great. I got to find out I don’t hate him as much off the court. He’s actually a pretty great guy. I’m sure he’d say the same thing."
Brown and Hayes became close enough that they decided to be roommates for their freshman season at Wisconsin. And what once was a rivalry based on two alpha dogs unwilling to give an inch has developed into mutual respect for the other. That comes despite the two playing the same position and battling for the same minutes under coach Bo Ryan.
Brown is a 6-foot-8, 237-pounder, while Hayes is listed at 6-7 and 250 pounds.
"I see it as a positive for sure," Brown said. "It allows us to push each other. Being in the same position and the same size, we have to work our hardest every day. Because either one of us could take each others’ spots, so that keeps us going and gets the best out of both of us."
To this point, Hayes has proven to be the more college-ready player and has earned significant backup minutes in the frontcourt for fourth-ranked Wisconsin. Hayes has appeared in all 12 games and averages 14.5 minutes, 5.1 points and 1.7 rebounds. During Wisconsin’s last victory against Eastern Kentucky, he registered a season-best 17 points and made 13 of 17 free throw attempts, constantly imposing his physicality in the paint.
It was exactly the type of display teammates knew he was capable of when he arrived on campus this summer.
"We’ve expected this all along," Badgers forward Sam Dekker said. "He was prepared and one of the hardest-working guys that we’ve been around. He’s always one of the last guys in the gym and always one of the first to come. That’s the type of guy you want to have on your team. That’s the type of guy you want to build your team around. …
"I think the only guy that can stop him is himself. I’ve tried to tell him that a few times. Once you realize that he’s not here to mess around and that he’s a big body in there, he’s going to be real tough."
Brown, meanwhile, has some catching up to do to earn playing time. He has appeared in four games for a total of 13 minutes, has yet to score a point and has five rebounds all season. Despite his lack of playing time, Brown has remained upbeat about his role and what he can achieve. And he is grateful to be a part of a team off to a 12-0 start — its best in nearly a century.
"It’s frustrating at some points knowing you could be out there and contribute," Brown said. "But 12-0. You can’t complain about that. I’m just working my hardest at practice so I’ll be ready to go out there when they need me.
"I just need a consistent motor, to go 100 percent all the time and not get down after little mess ups. Just keep playing after everything."
Added Hayes: "Vitto, he’s not the type of guy that needs to be patted on the back to get through things. He knows that he’s not getting the playing time he’d like. He’s not down or pouting about it. He’s just making sure he’s working hard in practice.
"The last couple weeks, he’s been giving the first team everything that we needed to see. He’s been sometimes playing better than the opponents we end up playing in the game. So he’s making his improvement. I think coach Ryan is noticing things. I’m sure his playing time will start increasing as the season goes on."
Brown said he and Hayes don’t discuss much basketball off the court and haven’t spoken much about playing time. Instead, they talk about school, music, movies — typical conversations for college freshmen.
Typical conversations for a developing friendship.
"Our relationship from the first meeting started off bitter because we were on opposing sides," Hayes said. "Four years later, we’re on the same team and I think we’ve put that behind us and we’re pretty good friends right now."
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