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Nigel Hayes compares the Wisconsin basketball team to a muscle.
Don’t stretch, bad things happen.
"Same with us," Hayes said. "If our team is tight, we’ll be more hesitant. If we go out loose, we’ll have fun and perform."
So it is that the freshman Toledo native and the Badgers are rollicking all the way to the Final Four.
Once cast aside after losing five of six Big Ten games earlier this season — a stretch that dropped Wisconsin from the national rankings — the second-seeded Badgers (30-7) enter Saturday’s semifinal against No. 8-seed Kentucky (28-10) as one of the nation’s hottest teams.
The two sides of Hayes are a big reason why.
On the court, the 6-foot-7, 250-pound forward is a no-mercy force. Hayes was named the Big Ten’s sixth man of the year and has provided critical minutes during the Badgers’ first run to the Final Four since 2000. He had 10 points and six rebounds in a Sweet Sixteen thumping of Baylor and helped smother top-seeded Arizona’s heralded big men in last weekend’s regional final.
Off the court, the sharp-witted Whitmer graduate is the team’s comic relief. You may know him as Nigel Burgundy after his popular recent video interview series for the Wisconsin athletics Web site.
Modeled after Will Ferrell’s newsman character in Anchorman, Hayes’ gumshoe alter ego has spent the NCAA tournament inquiring about everything from well-coiffed teammate Zach Bohannon’s presidential prospects to assistant Gary Close’s "rumored" rebuttal of an offer to coach the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I like Midwestern winters," Close cracked, "so I didn't want to go out to Southern California."
Hayes even eases the tension when others wouldn’t dare. After Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan steamed over a turnover earlier this season, Hayes told him, "If you want to put me at the 1, I can get us back in the lead."
"Or I might walk by and tell coach, ’Your suit jacket still looks good,’" said Hayes, who has averaged 7.8 points and 2.9 boards this season. "Just to loosen him up if he’s uptight."
In Hayes, whom Ryan calls a "delight to be around," the 66-year-old coach has met his match. The quirky master of the one-liner himself recalled spotting Hayes alone in the gym before a recent practice.
"Nigel always tries to beat me to the court," Ryan said. "I said, ‘Good, Nigel, the early bird catches the worm.’"
"Coach, the second mouse always gets the cheese," Hayes replied.
"I had never heard that," Ryan said. "I said, ‘All right, Nigel, you got one on me.’"
If freshman in the Big Ten often fade into the background, Hayes has done just the opposite.
"Nigel is a beast," Badgers guard Josh Gasser said. "Anytime he gets the ball something good happens, usually. As a freshman, that's just a rare trait. I don't think he realizes how good he can be sometimes. And off the court, he's a great personality, fits in great with us. He’s a fun guy to be around and funny. Pretty much everything you want in a teammate, he is."
Hayes’ embrace of college makes him a throwback. In a game Saturday headlined by Kentucky’s roster of one-and-done freshmen, he is the former 4.0 student who plans to earn his degree. Hayes said he later hopes to play pro basketball, then become the "CEO of Nike or own my own business."
For now, though, he is enjoying the ride of his life.
"I’m taking it all in the moment," Hayes said this week. "I’m pinching myself as I go."
Meanwhile, as the Badgers cut down the nets in Anaheim, Calif., last weekend, Hayes’ family reveled in Toledo. His parents, Al and Talaya Davis, watched their phones detonate with well wishes. They did not fall asleep until 3 a.m.
"We were still shaking with joy an hour after the game," Al Davis said.
Both parents will travel to Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where a tournament-record crowd of more than 75,000 is expected to watch Saturday’s semifinals.
"Oh, man, it’s almost surreal," Al Davis said. "We’re so happy for Nigel and his teammates. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and an amazing feeling."
A feeling that has no end in sight.
"There’s the opportunity of another game and a national championship," Hayes said. "We still have work to do."