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It’s Nigel Hayes Or Bust for the Wisconsin Badgers in 2015-16

The Wisconsin Badgers have  been one of the nation’s best teams over the last few years, but now face what could be a transitional season that may or may not end with the retirement of Wisconsin’s legendary Bo Ryan. It’s hard to demand too much out of a program that has achieved so much over the last few years, but for fans with high expectations, much will depend on the play of returning junior Nigel Hayes.

Since Ryan’s arrival in 2001 as the head coach in Madison, the Badgers have gone to a total of 14 NCAA Tournaments, seven Sweet Sixteens, and have either won the Big Ten regular-season title or Big Ten Tournament title five times.

However, what’s even more impressive is that Wisconsin has finished in the top four of the conference in every single season since Ryan took over in Madison. That’s an incredible performance because it truly shows the depth and quality of Wisconsin’s program. This isn’t a program that has been up or down or just narrowly sliding into the Big Dance, but a true contender in the conference and nationally on a yearly basis.

However, that run could be in real danger this season.

If one is evaluating Wisconsin’s roster on paper next season, two things are immediately apparent. The first thing is that several key and proven players are returning. With the return of Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig for next season, there’s no doubt that there is talent  and star power–at least at a few spots. Unfortunately, the other clear thing about Wisconsin’s roster is that outside of these proven players, the team is losing an incredible amount of depth, talent, and experience.

Chief among these departures are Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky–both were selected in the 1st Round of last year’s NBA Draft–but the Badgers will also be losing Duje Dukan, Josh Gasser, and Traevon Jackson. Just take a look at the massive contributions the Badgers are losing from last year.

Wisconsin’s Lost Contributions From 2014-15:

Lost contributions can’t predict the story of a team’s season alone, but it’s hard not to think Badgers fans are giving a pull of the proverbial collar after taking a look at that chart. Bo Ryan has shown in the past that he can find new contributors after great players leave the program, but replacing the kind of losses that the Badgers are experiencing this year will likely prove very difficult.

The good news is that Hayes has shown a lot during his time in Madison. In his two seasons with the program, Hayes has played in a total of 78 games and he averaged 12.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game last season. He also had an offensive rating of 123.8, an effective field goal rate of 55.7%, and a true shooting percentage of 60.0%.

These numbers were so good that KenPom rated him as the fourth best player in the conference last season all while playing on the same floor as the National Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky and a 1st Round Draft pick in Sam Dekker. There’s not much debate that Hayes played at an extremely high level even with an all-star cast next to him.

Wisconsin will need Hayes to be more than a great player–it needs him to elevate his play to an All-Big Ten level and compensate for the loss of five of its top seven players in total win shares. It’s not an easy task, but there does seem to be a lot of potential still on the table for Hayes. Just take a look at how his usage compared to Wisconsin’s top players.

2014-15 Wisconsin Badgers Usage:

(Stats via KenPom.com)

Though Hayes certainly got his fair share of possessions and shots last season, his usage really wasn’t all that high, especially for a player with his numbers. In fact, Hayes finished at #48 in the conference in percentage of shots used while on the floor of significant contributors. In short, though Hayes put up major numbers, there’s still some meat left on the bone for him and Wisconsin. Not only could he generally improve as a player, but his increased role could also allow him to grow in the player that Wisconsin needs him to be for next season. Given the team’s losses, Hayes will have to take advantage of these extra possessions, but given his exceptional play so far, it’s probably not all that unlikely.

Wisconsin undoubtedly loses a lot from last season, especially when one considers the program impact of players like Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky, but with the return and potential of Nigel Hayes, the Badgers will have more than a fighting chance in next year’s Big Ten. With that, perhaps they can yet again keep Wisconsin at the top of the conference under Bo Ryan and give him the sendoff he deserves after such a successful tenure in Madison.

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