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Badgers men's basketball: Nigel Hayes will return to Wisconsin for senior season
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UW MEN’S BASKETBALL

Badgers men's basketball: Nigel Hayes will return to Wisconsin for senior season

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Nigel Hayes has withdrawn his name from the 2016 NBA draft entry pool and will return for his senior season with the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team.

Hayes, a 6-foot-7 forward who declared for the draft last month but didn’t sign with an agent, broke the news to the State Journal on Tuesday evening with a three-word message via Twitter: “I’m coming back.”

Later, Hayes elaborated on his decision during a phone conversation, saying “it was more difficult than people will know.”

Ultimately, Hayes said returning to UW was the best decision for his future. Based on feedback he received at the NBA draft combine earlier this month in Chicago and following workouts with five teams over the past two weeks, Hayes said he understands what improvements he has to make to realize his dream of playing in the NBA.

Topping the list of areas Hayes needs to improve is his outside shooting. He’d also like to become a better ballhandler.

“There are more tools that I need to add in order to not only be an NBA player but, as I aspire to, be a great one,” Hayes said.

Another major factor in Hayes’ decision to return was his education. Hayes, a business major, is on pace to graduate in May 2017 and said his mother, Talaya Davis, has made it abundantly clear that she wants him to earn his degree.

“My mom just wants the best for me and my future, not only as a basketball player but as a man in general,” he said. “She’s definitely thrilled because her only desire was to get my diploma. So next year, coming back, I will be able to get that. As long as mother’s pleased, the world will continue to spin.”

Hayes’ return is a boost for a program that went 22-13 last season and advanced to the Sweet 16, the Badgers’ fifth trip to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend in a span of six seasons.

Greg Gard will begin his first full season as UW’s coach with his entire rotation from last season intact.

Hayes helped the Badgers make back-to-back trips to the Final Four during his first two seasons on campus, and his return could go a long way in helping UW make another deep tournament run next spring.

UW will begin next season as one of the favorites in the Big Ten Conference and perhaps ranked among the top 10 teams in the nation.

There will be a lot of hype surrounding the Badgers, much like there was prior to the 2014-15 season when Hayes was among a group of returnees that included future NBA first-round draft picks Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, along with Josh Gasser.

UW ended up winning a program-record 36 games that season and advanced to the NCAA tournament title game before falling to Duke.

“I’m not really getting caught up in that,” Hayes said. “I’ve been through it once sophomore year and we were lucky to almost pull out the storybook ending.

“But after going through that, I’m not really worried about that because I know what it took to do that, what goes into it. So I’m more concerned about conveying that to the guys on the team and letting them know what it takes and what it will take eventually to complete everything that we wanted to that year.”

The Badgers return their top 10 players in terms of minutes played, a group that includes the starting five of Hayes, Vitto Brown and Ethan Happ in the frontcourt along with guards Bronson Koenig and Zak Showalter.

That core group helped UW recover from a rough start to a tumultuous 2015-16 season that included Gard taking over the program — on an interim basis, at first — after longtime coach Bo Ryan abruptly resigned at midseason.

The Badgers were 7-5 when Ryan stepped down on Dec. 15 and were 9-9 overall in mid-January after a 1-4 start in Big Ten play under Gard.

But UW recovered to win 13 of its final 17 games — it went 11-1, including four victories over ranked opponents, during one stretch — and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the 18th consecutive season.

Hayes led the Badgers with 15.7 points and 3.0 assists per game last season and was second in rebounding (5.8) to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors.

But he struggled with his shot, finishing with a field goal percentage of 36.8 and a 3-point field goal percentage of 29.3. Those numbers were down significantly from his sophomore season, when he shot 49.7 percent overall and 39.6 percent from beyond the arc.

Hayes had appeared in the first round of 2016 NBA mock drafts following his sophomore season at UW, but his stock fell as a junior.

Still, he took advantage of a new rule that gives underclassmen an extended deadline to decide whether or not they’d remain in the draft. Hayes had until Wednesday to decide.

“I’m proud of Nigel for going through the process. It’s not easy to put yourself out on display over the course of a month,” Gard said in a statement. “I know it helped him with his decision, but also it will make him a better player and leader for our team.”

A strong senior season not only will help the Badgers, it will help Hayes cement his legacy. He is on pace to finish his UW career in the program’s top 10 in points, rebounds, assists and steals.

“There are a lot of pros to not going pro,” Hayes said. “You can use that as a (headline) for this, if you want. I think it’s extremely clever.

“But that all definitely factored into it, (possibly being on) that Mount Rushmore of Badgers — records, trophies, championships.”

Hayes said he was relieved that his big decision was out of the way.

“I was never stressed about it,” he said. “But I’m sick of all the meetings and people keep pestering me, keep texting me and also ignorant fans and their options on what I should do. I’m tired of grown men emailing me their opinions on what I should do with my future. At least that part is done.”

After the trip to the combine and workouts with the Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets the past two weeks, Hayes said he was just looking forward to taking a breather.

His first order of business Tuesday evening: going to get a pedicure with a friend, followed by a movie.

“My feet hurt,” Hayes said. “I’ve had a long few weeks of basketball. I’ve been traveling a lot. I’d like to relax.”

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