This week, we are profiling five players currently under the national radar who could become breakout stars of the NCAA tournament. Other profiles include:
It’s been an interesting season in Madison, Wis., this year. The Badgers started out 16-0 and looked like one of the nation's elite teams, ranked as high as third in the country. They took down the champions of the SEC, ACC, and Atlantic 10 in Florida, Virginia, and Saint Louis, and began Big Ten play 3-0 with wins over then-ranked Iowa and Illinois.
Then things took a turn. From January 14 to February 1 Wisconsin lost five of its next six games—the lone win coming at lowly Purdue—and dropped out of the rankings completely. I didn’t know what to think at the time. I was so high on the Badgers at the start of the season, and just like that they looked like they didn’t even belong in the NCAA tournament.
However, since their final loss in that stretch to Ohio State, the Badgers haven’t dropped a game. If they can win their conference tournament, they have a very strong chance of getting a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. The Badgers are a team that doesn’t really have one main star, a go-to player. The key to Wisconsin's success has been a whole team effort.
The Badgers have had one starting lineup the entire season, consisting of Ben Brust, Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser, Sam Dekker, and Frank Kaminsky. Bo Ryan rarely plays more than eight guys, sometimes sticking to only seven. Wisconsin's main sub off the bench, though, is the one player who could take the Badgers to the next level: Nigel Hayes.
He wasn’t a highly touted recruit like Jabari Parker or Julius Randle, and no, he hasn’t been as effective as those two this season. But Hayes has played extremely well in his role for the Badgers this year, especially during the second half of the season. After not scoring more than eight points in any of his first 11 games, Hayes did so in nine of his next 14, and has consistently contributed since then.
Lately, instead of taking out one of the team's three starting guards and playing Hayes along side Kaminsky and Dekker, Ryan has used Hayes to give Dekker and Kaminsky more rest. This creates a smaller, but more athletic lineup for the Badgers. Having three guards like Brust, Gasser, and Jackson is tough enough to deal with; combined with Dekker and Hayes’ versatility, they can create a lot of problems for opponents.
Listed at 6'7", 215 pounds coming out of high school, Hayes didn’t project to be as much of a threat in the paint as he has been. However, he has bulked up to 250 pounds while still maintaining his athleticism. With the added muscle, Hayes can easily make his way to the basket and draw contact. He leads the team with a 96.7 percent free throw rate, having shot 146 free throws to 151 field goals.
Hayes doesn’t always light up the score sheet, but he has shown that he’s capable of scoring when needed. He had a huge 14 points in a last-second win over Michigan Sate February 9.
In the tournament, Hayes's aggression on offense and ability to draw fouls will be key. If all goes well, Hayes could push his fellow front court teammates for minutes, much like last year when Mitch McGary took over as the Michigan's main big man.
Hayes isn’t the best freshman prospect in the country; he's not even in the top five. But that doesn’t matter. We aren’t talking about the draft, we’re talking about the NCAA tournament. And this year, Hayes could break out and become one of the faces of March.