Former NWO rivals now ‘best friends’ try for Final FourWritten by Tom Konecny | | email@example.com
Nigel Hayes said his University of Wisconsin teammate Vitto Brown has a unique skill that has nothing to do with basketball.
“He always goes to sleep with his phone in his hand, mid-text, then wakes up and finishes the text,” Hayes said. “Then he drops the phone and goes back to sleep. I’ve seen him do it at least 50 times.”
Hayes also has a non-hoops gift: visit YouTube and search, “Nigel Burgundy Hayes,” where he playfully channels Will Ferrell’s “Anchorman” character.
Both Hayes and Brown play on Wisconsin’s men’s basketball team, solidly poised to make another deep run in this year’s NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed.
Both Hayes and Brown proudly hail from Northwest Ohio high schools, Whitmer and Bowling Green, respectively, where they perfected their trade amid hotbeds of hardwood talent. Sharing more than locale — and a dorm room as freshmen — they’re both sophomore forwards, and measure the same height and weight (6 feet 8 inches, 235 pounds).
Neither considered playing locally, although Brown received his first offer from Bowling Green State University during his freshman year. He also turned down Ohio State. Hayes looked at Stanford, Ohio State and Minnesota before eventually choosing Wisconsin.
It must have been the forces of basketball destiny which brought them together as teammates some six hours away, because they hardly considered themselves friends while playing on separate Amateur Athletic Union teams here in the area.
“We were actually rivals to be honest,” Brown said. “We always seemed to meet in games. If there was one player I didn’t like, it was him. Even though we didn’t like each other at the time, we became best friends here.”
Brown said he learned some of Hayes’ tricks that referees didn’t notice back then, and applied them to his game.
A rigorous schedule usually keeps them away from home, but both have training routines when they do return. Brown works out with his family, which includes a brother who plays basketball at The College of Wooster. Hayes still looks up his high school mentor Bruce Smith, who coached for 22 seasons at Whitmer, and now coaches at Sylvania Southview.
“[Smith] is the reason I am who I am today,” Hayes said.
“[Hayes is] definitely the best player I’ve coached,” Smith said. “As a whole package, it’s not even close. He’s the best guy that I’ve ever had. I wish there were a few more like him. Guys like him make you a better coach than you are.”
Hayes draws similarities between Smith and his current coach, “Bo” Ryan.
“[Ryan] is just like Bruce Smith from Southview,” Hayes said. “Whatever you say for Bruce Smith goes for William Francis Ryan.”
Smith said Hayes isn’t home much, but they text two or three times a week.
“He knows I’ll let him in the gym,” Smith said. “We have a great relationship. He knows I’m in his corner. He’s not one of those guys that has to bring an entourage [to work out]. He wants to turn his weaknesses into strengths. He’s very tunnel-vision into what he wants to accomplish, and he wants to be an NBA player.”
As a No. 1 seed, Wisconsin has a strong chance to make a return trip to the Final Four, having lost to Kentucky in last year’s national semifinal game.
“I know we have the ability to, and it would also be good to have that rematch with Kentucky,” Brown said.
Being three states away hasn’t made them homesick, especially living in a vibrant town like Madison, but they do miss family — who only make about five games a year — and friends, and Hayes particularly misses Gino’s Pizza.
Some consider Hayes, last year’s Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year, an NBA prospect, and perhaps Brown in time, but both are planning for life after basketball. Hayes wants to work for Nike, or start his own casual and dress clothing company. Brown is majoring in broadcast journalism, and may pursue a music career. Brown and his family even have their own group, Shades of Brown, that has performed the National Anthem at the team’s home, the Kohl Center, twice.
For now, the Badgers are depending on the Northwest Ohio duo to help them advance in the Big Dance. Hayes has started all 29 games and averages 12.1 points per game with 6.3 rebounds per game. Brown has started 28 games and averages 2.1 points per game.
So, as great as their sleep-texting and celebrity impressions might be, their on-the-court contributions validate what Smith has known all along, which means we may see more of Ryan’s staffers scouting a gym near you.
“I think the city of Toledo and Northwest Ohio is extremely under-recruited,” Smith said. “I think there’s a lot of talent here, and there’s a lot of kids here that could play college basketball that are overlooked.”