W. Illinois-Wisconsin Preview
(AP) - Nigel Hayes will be taking more big shots this year and saying fewer big words.
The field of stenography's biggest fan is the new headlining act on the 17th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers as they open the season Friday night hosting Western Illinois.
''I try to stay away from words now in these interviews because that seems to get me in trouble like it did last year,'' the talkative Hayes deadpanned during Wisconsin media day.
Hayes became a viral sensation during the Badgers' run to the national title game for his interest in NCAA Tournament stenographers.
But Hayes is no longer just the wingman, like he was on Wisconsin's back-to-back Final Four teams.
This year's squad will be led by a pair of juniors who know nothing except making it to a Final Four: Hayes and quick point guard Bronson Koenig.
''My role and Bronson's role, suddenly we just have to take more shots,'' Hayes said. ''We'll definitely be looked upon to teach the young guys and the inexperienced guys what to do to best prepare them to play.''
There are huge voids to fill. The Badgers lost about two-thirds of the scoring and rebounding from last year's star-studded squad. Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker are gone to the NBA. Trusted senior guards Josh Gasser and Traevon Jackson are out of eligibility, as is top frontcourt backup Duje Dukan.
Six-foot-9 redshirt freshman Ethan Happ impressed the coaching staff with the way he took on Kaminsky in practice last year. Now, Happ hopes he can use those lessons learned against Kaminsky as a key member of the Badgers' rotation this season.
Two other juniors who came off the bench last season seem likely to begin the year as starters. Forward Vitto Brown could secure one of the starting frontcourt spots with Hayes, while Zak Showalter could join Koenig in the backcourt. Showalter in particular had spurts last season during which he provided the offense with energy, though he'll need to improve defensively.
Koenig (8.7 points) remains a constant at point guard. Hayes (12.4 points, 6.2 rebounds) will be the top option up front, and he hopes to be a more consistent outside shooter after making just under 40 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Coach Bo Ryan said that he would like to see Hayes get to the foul line more and be more assertive. Just as important is that Hayes will be counted on to set a standard for the younger Badgers.
''He needs to make sure that what he does is scrutinized even more now,'' Ryan said. ''His leadership skills will be on display in every drill he does in practice.''
Ryan is the other focal point for the Badgers (36-4) this season. The 67-year-old coach announced in June that this would be his last season, but he has since left open the possibility of continuing, in part because athletic director Barry Alvarez would not designate Ryan's long-time assistant Greg Gard - who's been with Ryan for more than two decades - as a coach-in-waiting similar to how Mike Hopkins will follow Jim Boeheim at Syracuse.
Ryan is trying to put lingering questions about retirement plans to rest for now by insisting that the focus be on preparations for this season. But the ''Will he-or-won't he coach beyond this season'' drama likely won't disappear, especially in high-profile games, at least until the coach and school have a more definitive answer.
Western Illinois (8-20) is continuing to rebuild under second-year coach Billy Wright and was picked to finish last in the nine-team Summit League. An area of strength for the Leathernecks will be in the backcourt, where guards and top scorers Garret Covington (15.5 ppg), J.C. Fuller (12.0) and Jabari Sandifer (7.4) all return.
Covington, who shot 35.6 percent from 3-point range last season, was a preseason first-team all-Summit League selection and was a second-team pick as both a freshman and a sophomore. Wright is hoping the addition of 6-foot-11 Brandon Gilbeck and 6-10 Jordan Hughes - both freshmen - will provide some balance to a team that was last in the conference in shooting at 40.1 percent.
"Last year we were three-ball happy, but we wanted to have more of a presence down low," Wright said after his team defeated Knox College 90-48 in an exhibition game Saturday. "We wanted to attack inside and I thought our guys did a good job of doing that."
This is Western Illinois' first game against a ranked opponent since a 59-55 defeat at then-No. 17 Michigan on Nov. 17, 2011.