Freshmen Are Key to Wisconsin Badgers' Big 10 Conference Title Hopes

By Paul Kilgas
Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

They were the first two players off the bench tonight for coach Bo Ryan, and they’re the first two players you’ll hear him talk about in any postgame interview. Everyone associated with the Wisconsin Badgers knows that the play of true freshmen Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig is going to determine whether or not the Badgers can win their first outright conference championship since 2007-08.

Bo Ryan does not like to play true freshmen. Josh Gasser is the only player since 2006 that has started multiple games for Wisconsin as a true freshman. Even super-recruit Sam Dekker did not start a single game last year as a true freshman, although he did play a lot of important minutes.

The makeup of Wisconsin’s roster this year — an inexperienced front line and a glut of wings plus the transfer of point guard George Marshall — has created opportunities for Hayes and Koenig. They have responded better than even the most optimistic fan could have hoped.

Nigel Hayes has been phenomenal in the past few games. He only averages 6.4 points per game, but in the past three contests he has scored 17, 10 and 19 points while playing about 18 minutes per game. Hayes is Wisconsin’s primary interior weapon on offense — Frank Kaminsky is more of a finesse player, although his post presence has improved — and his willingness to attack the basket is a welcome development for a team that had fallen in love with the three-pointer in the past few years.

Bronson Koenig’s quick development played a role in George Marshall’s decision to transfer. When Marshall suffered a concussion in the non-conference season, Koenig stepped in and had an immediate impact. He had seven points on 3-3 shooting in 23 minutes in the team’s third game of the season after playing one minute in the first two games combined. Since then he has played nearly 20 minutes per game as the first guard off the bench. His athleticism and slick passing have been a welcome addition to Wisconsin’s attack, which has become more diverse since he started logging serious minutes.

Tonight showed that there are still plenty of areas for both Hayes and Koenig to improve, but their blissfully ignorant approach helped keep Wisconsin in the game each time it seemed to be slipping away.

Hayes played only a few minutes in the first half because he picked up two quick fouls in the paint. Both fouls happened because Hayes had his hands down and the experienced post players of the Iowa Hawkeyes exploited his rookie mistakes. Hayes must also continue to work on his mid-range jump shot in order to keep his driving lanes open. It was promising to see Hayes keep assaulting the rim despite having three fouls, and his relentless approach helped turn the tide in Wisconsin’s favor early in the second half.

Koenig looked tentative in the first half, passing up several shots while having one attempt blocked badly. He picked up his play as the half went on, but Iowa’s length and aggressive defense initially put him on his heels. Then he picked up his third foul early in the second half and sat while the team made its run on the Hawkeyes. He came back with four minutes to go, but his absence caused Wisconsin to alter its game plan.

Fortunately for Wisconsin, neither Hayes nor Koenig will be counted on to provide offense throughout the season. The Badgers have multiple scorers and an experienced set of guards that can control the tempo of any given game. However, their youthful exuberance and athletic ability provide a dimension that the Badgers have rarely enjoyed under Bo Ryan. Their potential makes Wisconsin a legitimate threat to win the Big Ten Conference.

Paul Kilgas is a Big 10 Conference writer for RantSports.comFollow him on Twitter @PaulKilgas, “Like” him on Facebook, or add him to your network on Google.

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