Nigel Hayes Key to Wisconsin Beating Kentucky

The Wisconsin Badgers are in a prime position to hand the Kentucky Wildcats their first loss of the season in Saturday’s Final Four matchup, and sophomore forward Nigel Hayes will need to put up a solid performance if that is to happen.

Sure, senior seven-footer Frank Kaminsky (18.7 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 1.5 BPG) and junior Sam Dekker (13.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG) may be the alpha dogs of the Badgers’ offensive attack, but relying on the two of them to carry Wisconsin entirely against Kentucky will be counterproductive. To pull off the ultimate upset, head coach Bo Ryan must draw up plays to get Hayes involved, and fast.

On the season, Hayes posted 12.4 points and 6.3 boards per game while shooting 50.2 percent from the field. Even though he’s only 6’7″, 250 pounds, he plays with the tenacity and drive of someone a few inches taller. In the tournament this year, he is averaging 12.2 points and 5.5 rebounds on 43 percent shooting, but the last number can be attributed to his being absolutely smothered by a tough North Carolina defense in the Sweet Sixteen.

Moreover, Hayes made two clutch three-pointers in Wisconsin’s Elite Eight matchup against Arizona. Though long-range shooting isn’t a big part of his game, he shot 38 percent from beyond the arc this season and his threes against Arizona were two key blows that sealed the game for the Badgers.

But that isn’t why Hayes is a major x-factor against Kentucky on Saturday. Not because of his tournament performance thus far, but because a major Kentucky weakness was exposed in the team’s Elite Eight matchup against Notre Dame this past weekend.

Sure, Kentucky ended up winning 68-66 thanks to late free throws by Andrew Harrison, but there is no doubt that Notre Dame played the better game from start to finish. The Fighting Irish played better on-ball defense, forcing 11 turnovers, and used the Wildcats’ signature dribble-drive offense against them to the point where John Calipari’s squad looked incredibly lost on both sides of the court.

To give a better idea, 6’10”, 242 pound Notre Dame forward Zach Auguste patrolled the lane like a pit bull against Kentucky, scoring 20 points and pulling down nine rebounds while also throwing down three thunderous dunks. In doing so, he made seven-footer and blocking machine Willie Cauley-Stein look foolish and proved that this Kentucky defense can be beaten.

This is where Nigel Hayes comes in as an x-factor. Though not as tall as Auguste, he plays a very similar game in that he is a slashing forward who takes high-percentage shots and only attempts jumpers on an as-needed basis. It’ll be tough for him to play that game against a Kentucky interior defense that has two seven-footers in the aforementioned Cauley-Stein and freshman seven-footer standout Karl-Anthony Towns, not to mention 6’10” Trey Lyles, but determination is the name of the game in the Final Four and Hayes has plenty of it.

It also helps that Badgers coach Bo Ryan runs a swing offense that involves a lot of cutting the to basket and taking high-percentage shots and drawing fouls that result in free throws, basically free points. If the system can get off to a good start and Hayes gets just as many opportunities as teammates Dekker and Kaminsky, if not more, then Wisconsin definitely has a great shot at becoming the team that beat the streak.

If Hayes gets those opportunities and capitalizes on them, then the team’s great shot easily could become a reality.

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*Section Photo credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports; Featured Photo (above) credit to  Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports