NEW YORK — Matt Ferris squirmed and desperately tried to wiggle out of Nigel Hayes' grasp.
"I'm not sitting next to you," Ferrissaid to his Wisconsin teammate, trying to escape the swarm of journalists storming into the Badgers' locker room inside Madison Square Garden to ask Hayes questions.
"Let me go," Ferriscontinued. He struggled more. Ferris tried breaking Hayes' Jiu-Jitsu grip, but to no avail. Hayes was applying aself-described "rear naked love" choke to Ferris, and the 60 pounds Hayes hason the sophomoremade escape no easy task.
Entering alocker room after practice,there are certain things you'd expect to see — beads of sweat smacking the floor, long swigs of sports drinks and facial expressions of winded athletes. In the Badgers' case, there was an unusual air of levity instead of the typical unwinding.
"This is nothing but brotherly love," Hayes said as he cinched in the grip around Ferris' head a bit tighter. "This is my guy, Ferris. Ugliest guy on the team. As you can see I'm trying to rub off some of my good looks on him. Not sure it'll help."
Taking a look at Hayes (and by proxy Ferris, whosehead was pinched firmlyunder Hayes' left arm),it's easy to see the senior Badger ismost responsible for that.
Hayes has done more than flip a switch on the court since the start of tournament season. He averaged just over 13 points a game and shot 44 percent from the field during the regular season. Since the start of the Big 10 Tournament, Hayes has shot nearly 50 percent while averaging three more rebounds a contest, and he has played stellar defense.
Hayes is leading by example on the court, but he arguably has meant more in the locker room prior to the biggest game of the Badgers season.
"It's a great experience to have Nigel on the team. He has such a goofy personality, and he's always joking around with guys," said freshman walk-on guard Michael Ballard. "When you have a guy like Nigel and his personality at the top of the team, it just trickles down to the rest of the team. It makes everyone closer. It's more like a family."
A walk-on guard with something positive to say about one of the biggest stars in the country? It goes beyond just being a teammate at that point.
"It's a brotherhood," Ballard concluded, reaffirming Hayes' sentiment.
The lack of pressure in the locker room all pointed to one player. Every time the question was asked, the same answer came back: The seniors lead by exampleand Hayes is the Badgers' heartbeat.
Consider this: Just a few days before arguably the biggest game of their lives, Badgers players made an extremely questionable decision in Times Square, with Hayes at the forefront.
"We walked out to the 'Cake Boss' guy restaurant. I think his name's Carlos. It was really good. We got thisOreo tower."
Oreo tower? Two nights before a nationally televised game? Good thing basketball shortsare stretchy. Think of the carbs.
But Hayes understands eating an entire cookie cake isan ingredient in the whole success pie.For a competition as grueling as the NCAA Tournament, where the pressure mountswith each victory, it's important for teammates to stay not only focused, but loose. The pressure for the Badgers, who are looking to make their third Elite Eight in the past fiveseasons, is seemingly nonexistent.
And the reason isn't necessarily talent, according to Badgers players. For Hayes, it's about experience. It's about having been in this situation before and following the example set by players on previous teams.
"We've been here. I've been around some upperclassmenthat stay loose and stay serious," Hayes said. "There's a switch between relaxing, having fun, letting loose and there's also the switch when you're focused. …We try to do our best to balance it."
And when it comes down to business, Hayes knows when to keep it real and true. When asked how the Badgers are going to stay motivated after knocking off No. 1 seed Villanova, he loosened the grip around Ferris' neck and his jovial tone changed.
"We didn't win anything.All we did wasadvancein the tournament. We still have the same goal as the 15 other teams have," he said.
As for Ferris' feelings about Hayes, well . . .
"He's kind of a bully . . . but he's got me under his wing for sure. Literally and figuratively."