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Badgers men’s basketball: Defensive play often overlooked aspect of Nigel Hayes’ game

January 31, 2017

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Remember how Nigel Hayes essentially shut down Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan whenever the two were matched up during a game on Jan. 9?

Chances are, the answer is no. The dominant storyline that day, when the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team left Mackey Arena with a 66-55 loss to the host Boilermakers, was how Hayes and the Badgers couldn’t get anything done on offense.

By now, Hayes is resigned to the fact most will grade his play based on how many points he scores or how well he shoots the ball. He went 4 of 12 from the field in a 10-point performance against Purdue and is shooting 45.7 percent overall, 32.0 percent from 3-point range and 60.8 percent from the free throw line on the season.

As for what he’s done on the other end of the court?

“No one cares,” Hayes said. “But everyone goes, ‘Damn, Nigel, quit shooting jump shots.’ ”

Hayes is wrong about one thing: People do appreciate his defense, namely his coaches and teammates.

The Badgers rank first among Big Ten Conference teams and ninth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency ratings, per Ken Pomeroy’s website, and a major reason is the work of Hayes.

“He’s an experienced basketball player, but some guys are on different levels,” UW senior guard Zak Showalter said. “And defensively, Nigel’s on that next level.”

During the offseason, Hayes sat down with UW coach Greg Gard and discussed expectations for the 2016-17 season. One of the goals they thought was attainable for Hayes was winning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

That’s not likely to happen because Hayes’ campaign lacks gaudy numbers.

UW forward Ethan Happ was a member of the Big Ten All-Defensive team last season and is likely to repeat as a sophomore because he is third in the Big Ten in rebounding (9.0), second in steals (2.0) and also leads the Badgers with one block per game.

Showalter, a relentless perimeter defender, is fourth in the Big Ten in steals (1.6) and also has a chance to make the All-Defensive team.

And then there’s Hayes, who is averaging 5.8 rebounds and less than a steal per game. He has eight blocks on the season.

“That’s what people look at, because it’s right there, it’s in black and white,” UW assistant coach Howard Moore said. “But if you’re a coach or if you’re someone who follows this league on a daily basis and watch the best defensive teams in our league and see why they’re good and not just look at numbers but look at the actual substance of what they do, then someone like Nigel stands out.”

In fact, it’s not a stretch to call Hayes the Badgers’ MVD: most valuable defender.

Start with his ability to guard any position, from a point guard like Ohio State’s JaQuan Lyle to a post player like Swanigan.

Purdue beat UW earlier this month largely because of Swanigan, who finished with a game-high 18 points on 7 of 10 shooting. But most of that damage was done against Happ. Swanigan finished with no points, one shot attempt and five turnovers in the 16 possessions that game in which he was guarded by Hayes.

Hayes gives UW the luxury of exchanging on ball screens, which is particularly helpful in late shot-clock situations when a guard is forced to get up a shot over Hayes.

“He takes a lot of pride in his defense, and what we do team defensive wise allows us to have some success getting stops and shutting down certain players,” Moore said. “His versatility that way has been a huge asset for us.”

One thing that’s easy to miss, according to Gard, is how often Hayes covers up for teammates’ mistakes by shading into an area, even if it’s for a second or two, to provide help defense.

“He’ll take a guy that’s flashing open or he’ll stay a little longer when he knows somebody’s in trouble,” Gard said. “He’s pretty aware of his surroundings.”

Gard acknowledged Hayes has a lot of great tools at his disposal on defense.

“Being 6-8 and being able to move like that obviously helps,” Gard said, “but he also is pretty wily with his approach.”

Twice in the game against Purdue, Swanigan was whistled for traveling after Hayes used a technique that is referred to as “pulling the chair out.” Hayes leaned into Swanigan in the post, then quickly backed away to make the Purdue star lose his balance just as he was turning to make a move toward the basket.

Hayes pulled the same move Saturday against Rutgers and it resulted in a traveling call during UW’s 61-54 overtime win in New York.

“He’s really good at doing that,” Moore said. “But again, it starts with the neck up and he obviously is pretty good when he uses his head.”

When the No. 10 Badgers (18-3, 7-1 Big Ten) take on Illinois (13-9, 3-6) tonight at the State Farm Center, one of UW’s top priorities on defense will be slowing Malcolm Hill. The 6-6 senior swingman is fifth in the Big Ten in scoring at 17.5 points per game.

If Hayes draws the assignment of guarding Hill, he’ll be ready. Inspired by a YouTube clip called “Guarding the Greats” starring his idol, former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, Hayes has become almost obsessive in how he prepares for matchups.

Thanks to Synergy Sports Technology, a subscription service that breaks down video, Hayes can type in a player’s name and have situational clips immediately available to study on his iPad. Gard said Hayes often will point out information he’s discovered while UW staff is going over opponent scouting reports.

Of course, even if Hayes plays a major role in a stellar defensive effort for the Badgers, it’ll probably go unnoticed unless he knocks down shots.

And as for accomplishing his goal of being named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Hayes realizes that’s probably a lost cause.

“It’s not up to me,” he said. “I just make sure that I do my part when I’m called upon.”