MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- A low roar of anticipation starts buzzing from the hometown fans as soon as forward Nigel Hayes gets the ball.
Maybe he'll try a quick, face-up jumper. Or drive the baseline for a reverse. Or some spin move in the lane.
He's just a freshman, but the 6-foot-7 Hayes has already become a key contributor who provides a jolt of energy off the bench. The Big Ten's Sixth Man of the Year is still learning - and that might be a scary proposition for opponents preparing for the second-seeded Badgers in the NCAA tournament.
Wisconsin (26-7) opens play on Thursday against No. 15 seed American in Milwaukee.
''He's a mental rock. He's as solid as it gets,'' guard Josh Gasser said about Hayes. ''He doesn't get phased at all by anything.''
As the Big Ten season rolled along, the first-year player from Toledo, Ohio, earned more minutes in crucial spots. Hayes averages 8.0 points per game overall, but 9.8 points in conference play. Fans have taken to Hayes - especially when he gets the ball in front of the student section - and he feels comfortable enough to joke around, too, even in a pressure-packed season where it's win or go home.
Asked if he could run in 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds in the new lightweight uniforms the team started wearing for the Big Ten tournament, Hayes joked he could go under 4 seconds.
''You have to be seen but maybe with the right angles and the wind behind me, I can get it done,'' he deadpanned.
That might be a stretch for the 250-pound Hayes. But don't doubt his quick hands, which he displays with what seems like an instinctive ability to disrupt passing lanes and get steals.
Hayes doesn't need to be a go-to guy on a team loaded with veterans and on a balanced offense - though he was the best offensive player for stretches during Wisconsin's midseason slump. Ohio State forward Marc Loving is very familiar with his friend and fellow Toledo native. They had played together since third grade.
''He was definitely prepared to make an impact on (the Big Ten) his freshman year. He puts in a lot of hard work on his craft,'' Loving said. ''Obviously it's paying off.''
Hayes is the first reserve off the bench for either Frank Kaminsky or Sam Dekker, two inside-out frontcourt threats. Wisconsin is loaded with savvy perimeter players in Gasser, sharpshooter Ben Brust and point guard Traevon Jackson.
So in one sense, there's time to learn on the job without too much pressure to produce.
On-the-ball defense could be better, while foul shooting needs a lot of improvement. Hayes has a team-high 157 free-throw attempts but has hit just 58 percent.
''He'll get better at the free-throw line,'' associate head coach Greg Gard said. ''But in terms of what he's brought to us from a physical standpoint and from ability to put pressure on the rim as a post player - we're not 26-7 without Nigel Hayes, I know that.''
Gard said Hayes is sharp and asks good questions, but his workhorse otherwise doesn't say much.
''It's not that he always maybe does it right every single time, but he has a very good concept of how we want to play and what his strengths are,'' he said.
Note: Gard is the assistant in charge of scouting American, but the Badgers are also getting help from senior forward Zach Bohannon. The backup transferred after the 2010-11 season from Air Force, where his team ran a methodical Princeton-style offense - the same scheme used by American. After learning of the matchup Sunday, Bohannon asked Gard if he could get Wisconsin's scout team together to help them walk through the Princeton offense. ''Most of the guys from the first team ended up coming down and watching it, too, so actually, it was a neat experience for our whole team, neat bonding experience before the NCAA games,'' Bohannon said.
AP Sports Writer Rusty Miller and freelance writer Tammy Madsen contributed to this story.
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