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Asked by his coach to step his game up, Nigel Hayes did just that for Wisconsin

Urgency returns for Nigel Hayes and Wisconsin, spring questions at OLB, and James White’s homecoming

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Today is Monday, Feb. 20, and this is your Wisconsin Wake-Up Call.

Back on track

Nigel Hayes said he knew he needed to step his game up, and that’s exactly what he did.

In Wisconsin’s 71-60 win against Maryland on Sunday, Hayes scored 21 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and performed the way seniors need to at this time of year.

“He did what he does well,” coach Greg Gard said of Hayes’ second-half performance, when he was 4 of 8 from the floor. “He’s a match-up problem. If you put a smaller, lighter guy on him, he’s got enough strength and size to go through people. If you put a bigger guy on him, he can counter and spin. And he’s such a willing passer. He finds guys.”

So many, including the media, stare at a box score afterward to determine a particular guy’s worth. Sometimes, it’s because we don’t know the game well enough to break down how a guy screens or cuts or puts a pass right where it needs to be on a post entry. And because of that, Hayes suffers. If you look at his stat sheet, and see he went 6 of 15, including 0 of 2 from 3-point range, some would say he didn’t play all that well.

What those numbers on a page don’t show enough of, though, was the mentality and aggressiveness to go hard to the rim and create contact. Nor does it articulate what he did on the defensive end to help hold everyone not named Melo Trimble to 10-of-28 shooting. And it can’t tell you about his increased vocal leadership, notably getting after freshman D’Mitrik Trice when he failed to do a proper ball fake on a pass that was almost intercepted late in the game.

“He’s unselfish. He wants to win. He doesn’t care, really, about the other stuff. He just wants to win,” Gard said. “Sometimes it’s not pretty. But the kid wants to win.”

It’s easy to say when shots start to fall that a team is playing better, and that certainly happened in the second half when the Badgers hit on 51.5 percent of their attempts. But they also played with a sense of determination that was seemingly lacking in recent games, which played a part in losses to Northwestern and Michigan, and left Wisconsin in first-place tie in the Big Ten with Purdue.

“They were fighting for their tournament lives and trying to build a resume,” Hayes said of the Wildcats and Wolverines. “We should have been fighting to keep the (two-game) lead we did have (that we’ve) now given away. We finally have that sense of urgency on our own end.”

Following the loss to Michigan on Thursday, Hayes and Gard had a 1-on-1 meeting in which the coach told the player what he needed from him down the stretch of the season. Play your game, be assertive, be a leader and raise the rest of the team up were the main points. On Sunday, with help from Ethan Happ, Bronson Koenig and others, Hayes answered the bell.

“Part of that is definitely us growing, maturing, becoming more disciplined,” Hayes said. “Coach Gard challenged us individually to do what we needed to do, and as a team, pull together and get the job done. I think we responded pretty well.”

Big shoes to fill

We’re getting closer and closer to the start of spring practice, so we’ve been taking a look at the biggest questions that need some answers over the 15 sessions. We continue that with the position on defense where Wisconsin lost its two biggest playmakers.

Who fills the void left by the departure of outside linebackers Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt?

Biegel and Watt were pure havoc on many Saturdays. But with them now getting ready to play on Sundays, the Badgers must find answers at a key spot in any base 3-4 defense.

tj watt-nfl draft-2017-wisconsin badgers
T.J. Watt is getting ready for the NFL, leaving a big hole to fill at outside linebacker for Wisconsin. (Bobby Ellis/Getty Images)

The one known commodity is senior Garrett Dooley. Forced into the starting lineup when Biegel missed two games because of injury, Dooley more than held his own in those stints and finished with 3.5 sacks and 6.0 tackles for loss for the season. After injuries and multiple position changes, Dooley looks to have found a home at outside linebacker.

But he’s only one man. Who else will fill in? The first name that pops up is Zack Baun. The redshirt sophomore is the type of athlete that should thrive, but he’s an inexperienced defender. It showed at times, especially when he’d get sucked in on the many read-option looks the Badgers faced in 2016. If he can be more disciplined, he’s got a shot to be a big-time playmaker.

Two intriguing names to remember are Andrew Van Ginkel and Christian Bell.

Van Ginkel comes to Madison after spending two years at FCS school South Dakota, including a redshirt freshman season that saw him rack up nine sacks and 18 tackles loss. He spent another year at Iowa Western Community College, where injuries limited him, but he still managed 13 tackles for loss. He chose Wisconsin over Nebraska and others because he thought he could see himself in a Biegel- and Watt-type role. He’ll get that chance.

A high school teammate of running back Bradrick Shaw, Bell transferred from Alabama last summer and had to sit out 2016 because of NCAA rules. Another very good athlete, Bell got praise from the coaching staff for his work during bowl practices and will be looking to build on that this spring.

Welcome home

James White has been on a whirlwind media tour since serving as one of several heroes in the New England Patriots 25-point Super Bowl comeback win against the Atlanta Falcons more than two weeks ago. He’s been to Disneyland, on “Conan” and “Live with Kelly,” and a number of other adventures. This weekend, though, it was back to his alma mater — Wisconsin — for numerous appearances at various sporting events.

It started Saturday night at Wisconsin’s hockey matchup with Michigan, where he dropped the ceremonial puck before what turned into a 6-4 victory for the Badgers.

On Sunday, it continued with White meeting with the Madison media prior to the basketball game, where he dished on what life has been like the last two weeks (hectic); what his time at Wisconsin meant to his success (a lot); having dinner with former teammate Corey Clement (talking about the NFL combine); and the best and worst things about being coached by Bill Belichick (he’s funny, tough on players).

And then it was on to the game, where he was introduced during a break in play. With chants of M-V-P raining down, White signed a football and threw it into the student section, setting off a crazy scrum for the souvenir.

White has always been just as good of an ambassador for the Wisconsin brand as J.J. Watt and Russell Wilson. It just took becoming a Super Bowl legend for everyone to see it.

Big weekend for in-state football recruits

Wisconsin high school football players are underrated, but as more and more make their way to the NFL — the state will produce at least three high draft picks this year alone in the Badgers Ryan Ramczyk, Biegel and Watt — the intensity of recruiting the state will start to increase, especially with high-energy recruiters in the form of Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh sniffing around.

It’s why days like Sunday, in which the Wisconsin staff offered three in-state recruits a scholarship, are so important to keeping the invisible wall up around the state that former coach Barry Alvarez worked so hard to build.

You can’t just think, like former coach Gary Andersen did, that because a kid grew up in Wisconsin, he’ll automatically want to stay in the state to play his football. Paul Chryst and his staff understand it, and though they aren’t going to hand out offers to every single kid that Minnesota or another Big Ten school does just to stay in the good graces of high school coaches, they take the recruiting of in-state athletes as serious, if not more so, than any other.

Catching up