By GENARO C. ARMAS
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Clutch shots. Final Four experience. Press conference hijinks.
Seniors Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig (Ho-Chunk Nation) have been through just about every conceivable situation at Wisconsin, including two Final Fours and a midseason coaching change.
They’ve got one last shot to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
“They understand it’s one at a time,” coach Greg Gard said. “If you don’t play well, it will only be one game.”
One last hurrah to add to their legacies in Madison. Wisconsin has 11 NCAA tourney wins over the previous three seasons, more than any other team in the country.
Hayes and Koenig have been there for each one, having played important roles since their freshman seasons. As sophomores, they started on a team that featured future NBA players Sam Dekker ad Frank Kaminsky. Dekker’s play in the 2015 tournament, when the Badgers lost to Duke in the championship game, elevated the forward’s stock enough that he was drafted in the first round by the Houston Rockets as a junior.
Now Hayes and Koenig get another chance to get the attention of NBA scouts.
The 6-foot-8 Hayes averaged 13.5 points and 6.5 rebounds this year, returning for his senior season after getting input on his NBA draft stock last year. Some draft boards list Hayes as a potential mid- to late second-round pick.
Koenig averaged a team-high 14.1 points but was slowed for a couple weeks late in the year by a calf injury. The team’s best clutch shooter and facilitator, Koenig geared up for his senior season when he went through intense workouts with a celebrity trainer in Los Angeles last summer.
“I was trying to be as well-prepared as I can be … because the way NBA (general managers) and everyone look at us, in college if you don’t basically kill your senior year, then you’re not going to be drafted,” Koenig said in the preseason. “I just took it upon myself to go out there to (Los Angeles) and work as hard as I can.”
No one questions their work ethic. The results, though, didn’t always match preseason expectations.
The Badgers (25-9) were considered the Big Ten standard-bearer with Hayes and Koenig leading an experienced team, and emerging big man Ethan Happ providing a post presence. Hayes was the league’s preseason player of the year.
Wisconsin ended up finishing second in the Big Ten and advanced to the conference tournament final, when they lost to Michigan . Still a good season, though not quite what was expected from a Final Four contender.
And Wisconsin could still be just that, especially since Koenig appears to be fully healed from a calf injury that slowed the Badgers during a late-season rut of five losses in six games. The Badgers open NCAA play on Thursday in Buffalo, New York, as a No. 8 seed against ninth-seeded Virginia Tech.
“They don’t let the outside noise or all the drama that comes with it … they do a very good job of filtering that,” Gard said about Hayes and Koenig after the 71-56 loss to Michigan.
Koenig thrives in clutch situations. Brimming with confidence, he has a bit more of a reserved personality — especially when compared with Hayes.
An affinity for press conference stenographers turned Hayes into a viral sensation during the 2015 tournament . A dry wit stands out in postgame sessions with media that are otherwise often dominated by clichés.
As they’ve matured, Koenig and Hayes have also become more confident taking stands on issues. Koenig, whose mother is Native American, last year traveled to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota to take part in the protest over the construction of an oil pipeline.
Hayes has spoken out in support of pay for college athletes. This season, Hayes and junior guard Jordan Hill also each took a step back from their teammates during the national anthem as a form of protest.
“Fortunately, I have great teammates. I’ve done some pretty solid things with them on the basketball court,” Hayes said recently when asked about his legacy at Wisconsin, “and also off the court, try to just do what I can to make the world a better place.”
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