MADISON, Wis. - When you bring in a freshman whose nickname in high school was the "matchup nightmare," chances are you've got yourself a pretty good recruit. That's exactly what the University of Wisconsin received last November when Nigel Hayes signed his letter of intent to come to Madison.
Hayes, a 6-foot-7, 250-pound power forward, said his AAU coaches gave him the nickname because he was often a mismatch problem for his defender; either too big and strong for them, or too quick and versatile.
In his senior season at Whitmer High School in Toledo, Ohio, Hayes took advantage of numerous mismatches to the tune of 16.2 points per game on 54 percent shooting from the field. He also grabbed 8.8 rebounds per contest. Hayes finished his high school career with 1,333 points, 766 rebounds, 294 assists and a school-record 163 blocks.
As evidenced by the school record in blocks, Hayes is not just an offensive wonder. Often times when a player is too big for his defender, he can find himself at the other end of the mismatch when playing defense. This is not the case with Hayes, who prides himself in being a strong defender.
"Thanks to [Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan] and the preaching of defense here, I feel like I can go out there and guard just about anybody," Hayes said. "I wouldn't say that I can go out there and guard a point guard the whole game, but if a switch happens on a screen then I'll be able to hold my own for that possession without the team missing a step."
That versatility is part of what attracted Ryan and his staff to Hayes in the first place. Last November, after Hayes had signed his letter of intent, Ryan said that Hayes, "has the ability to play both forward positions and has the college-ready physique and wingspan to be a big contributor in the future."
Wisconsin was not alone in its pursuit, with Minnesota, Stanford and Ohio State, Hayes' home state school, rounding out the Rivals.com three-star recruit's top four.
It eventually came down to Ohio State and Wisconsin and while Hayes had his former AAU teammate and good friend, Buckeye commit Marc Loving, trying to convince him to do the same, the 2013 standout had his sights set on a different shade of red. Badger red.
"Wisconsin recruiting me hard and early was big," the first-team all-Ohioan said. "The chance to play right away was also a huge factor."
"Loving mentioned [us both going to Ohio State] every now and then," Hayes continued, "but we made our own decisions and what was best for us."
Hayes joins fellow-freshman Vitto Brown and Traevon Jackson as players on this Wisconsin team from the Buckeye State. He scored a not-too-shabby 26 on his ACT and is a self-described "nerd" who likes to "read facts and look things up on discovery channel and just learn weird stuff."
In order to take advantage of the chance to play right away, Hayes knows he needs to work on his craft and better his game every single day.
"I've got to be my own toughest critic about where I want to get better," Hayes said. "Shooting the ball, ball-handling, and being aggressive are areas I want to improve. Sometimes I want to make the extra pass and then that turns into a turnover in practice. If I could just be more aggressive without being a ball hog - because there is a fine line - then I'll be better."
Assertive in his belief that he has the right amount of confidence needed in order to do what it takes to see a heavy dose of playing time, Hayes laid out his course of action in plain and simple English.
"When my name is called," he said, "I'll be able to go out there and produce at the level - no, above the level - coach Ryan and his staff expect of me."
Ryan and his staff are hoping that Hayes can step in right away and help to make up for the losses of Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren, who were fifth and sixth in the Big Ten with 7.3 and 6.9 rebounds per game, respectively.
Berggren is Wisconsin's all-time leading shot blocker with 144 career blocks so the Badgers are in need of a rim protector - a job that Hayes believes he and Brown will try to fill. When asked why Brown fit the bill as the team's rim protector, Hayes said, "[Vitto] was the leading shot blocker in Ohio last year, and his twitter name is "Sensei Swat" (@SenseiSwatt44). Enough said."
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