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Nigel Hayes wears a different shade of red than he always envisioned.
The freshman forward for Wisconsin played on a Columbus-based AAU basketball team, watched his older, brother, Kenny, play a season of football at Ohio State, and grew up in a Toledo home where scarlet ran deep.
“Being from Ohio, I was all Ohio State,” Hayes said. “I’ve been immersed in it.”
But when Hayes made his college decision, it was not about what he always wanted. It was just as much about about who wanted him.
Though the Buckeyes offered the coveted Whitmer graduate a scholarship, no school pursued him quite like Wisconsin. Badgers coach Bo Ryan even played the video game Call of Duty on a visit to his house, holding the controller upside down and watching his character get killed within 30 seconds — an experience Hayes recalled with a laugh as “very awkward for coach.”
“Wisconsin came after me the hardest,” Hayes said in a phone interview Thursday night. “I feel great about [my choice.]”
As the No. 14 Badgers (17-4, 4-4 Big Ten) prepare to face 24th-ranked Ohio State (16-5, 3-5) on Saturday in Madison, Hayes has defied the usual transition period for a rookie in one of the nation’s most bruising leagues.
The 6-foot-7, 250-pound inside-out threat has already twice been named Big Ten freshman of the week and is averaging 8.8 points on 52 percent shooting and 3.6 rebounds in conference play. He is the first Badgers player off the bench, playing 16.2 minutes per game with more to come.
“I just told him last week, ‘I’ve got to get you more minutes. You’ve earned it,’” Ryan said.
For Hayes, it is further validation Wisconsin was, as his father, Albert Davis, put it, “the perfect fit.”
Though the Buckeyes’ recent slide has made it apparent they could have used Hayes, OSU coach Thad Matta figured it would be hard to find the freshman minutes on a team that returned five of its top six scorers.
“It probably wasn’t the greatest fit in terms of what Nigel wanted,” Matta said this week. “He’s a very intelligent kid, and obviously he’s having a great year. I think he was kind of looking at what he viewed as the best situation to go in at an early age and make an impact.”
Besides, Hayes also connected with Ryan and his lead recruiter, assistant coach and Findlay native Lamont Paris. Like at Whitmer, where he starred for four years and graduated with a 4.1 GPA, Hayes has come to appreciate the Badgers’ gritty edge and the man behind it.
“Coach Ryan is just like [former Whitmer coach] Bruce Smith. They’re carbon copies of one another,” he said. “There’s even the same funny jokes, where you’re wondering, ‘Should I laugh, or should I try to understand what he’s saying?’”
Ryan, too, has a soft spot for the good-humored Hayes, saying, “Maybe it takes a character to know a character.”
“He’s such a delight to be around,” Ryan said. “Yet when he competes, everything else goes out the window. He competes as hard as anybody we’ve ever had here.
“We just liked everything about him. He’s a great student who does all the things that need to be done. All the players on the team love to be around him. There’s really not much that he doesn’t bring. He’s filled in at different positions, played guys who are 6-foot-2 and played guys 7 feet tall. He just wants to know what he can do next.”
Hayes said his next aim is becoming more aggressive on offense, which he hopes will help jolt the Badgers back on course. Since starting 16-0 and climbing to third in the polls, Wisconsin has lost four of its last five games — including a stunning 65-56 home defeat against Northwestern on Wednesday.
“It’s been a great learning experience,” said Hayes, who is joined at UW by fellow freshman and Bowling Green graduate Vito Brown. “First there was all the media hoopla about how great we were, and it’s also good to be part of the adversity. I’ve gotten the best of both worlds.”
Now, two of his worlds will collide for the first time this season. Hayes’ family remains Buckeyes fans too, though his mother, Talaya Davis, clarifies, “We’re Ohio State football fans.” Her profile on Twitter reads, “#BuckeyeFan, #BadgerMom.”
Saturday, though, there will be no divided loyalties. As Albert Davis said to sign off a phone call, “On Wisconsin.”
Contact David Briggs at: email@example.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.
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