NCAA Tournament 2017: Wisconsin's Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig two wins away from exclusive club

Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig can join the rare Three Fours Club by surviving a tough East Region.

If the SAT were a proper test, and not merely a device designed to torture teenagers, this is the sort of important question that might be asked within:

Bill Walton. Patrick Ewing. Bronson Koenig. Marques Johnson. Rodney McCray. Hakeem Olajuwon. Nigel Hayes. Which of these is not like the other?

(Hint: There may be more than one acceptable answer).

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Thousands of college basketball players have appeared in the NCAA Tournament. Slightly more than 2,600 have been fortunate enough to play in the Final Four, from 1939 in Evanston, Ill., through 2016 in Houston. Wisconsin seniors Hayes and Koenig are among the precious few who’ve gotten there twice. But they are so close to joining one of the most exclusive clubs in all of sports.

With two more victories, they will join the Three Fours Club. Yes, I just made up that name.

Only 72 players have made it to the Final Four three times during their college careers. They include some of the greatest names in the history of the sport. If Wisconsin is able to triumph over Florida, Baylor and South Carolina this weekend at the NCAA East Region in Madison Square Garden, Koenig and Hayes will join 29UCLA players, a dozen from Duke and others from such programs as Cincinnati, Kentucky, North Carolina and Louisville.

If Kentucky makes it, forward Derek Willis and guard Dominique Hawkins could join them, as well.

Imagine being able to say you are in a select group that includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Grant Hill and John Havlicek.

“They played with a lot of really good teammates,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “Obviously the two Final Four teams that they came in and were a part of as a freshman and sophomore are —they kind of walked into college basketball utopia. They went through a probably abnormal track in terms of a college student-athlete, of walking into two teams that were back-to-back years with that much success.

“So they saw the pinnacle of it and they have also learned in the last two years how to grind and strain and work through adversity maybe when things weren’t going quite as smoothly as those two years.”

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Hayes and Koenig were essential contributors to those two seasons, particularly the 2015 team that played for the national championship. Koenig averaged 8.7 points,shot 40.5 percent from 3-point range that season and took over the starting point guard spot when regular Traevon Jackson was injured. Hayes averaged 12.4 points and 6.2 rebounds. He scored 13 in the title game against Duke and played 37 of the 40 minutes.

“Coming in, I didn’t really know what to expect,” Koenig said. “Coach Ryan told me before I came that with everybody coming in and everything, everyone they had at that time, we could win a national championship … and obviously making it to back-to-back Final Fours was a pretty special thing. And I didn’t really expect that. But all the experience I think is definitely going to help us, and has helped us, just not to be nervous and jittery and all that kind of stuff.”

Not everyone who is in the Three Fours Club is an all-time great, but most of those included made enormous contributions to the construction of college basketball’s history.

UCLA’s run of dominance under John Wooden produced more a third of the club, from Jabbar’s teammates Lynn Shackelford and Ken Heitz to successors Curtis Rowe and Sidney Wicks to the end of that line with Dave Meyers in 1975.

Duke featured the only three players who ever made four: wings Greg Koubek and Brian Davis and center Christian Laettner. But starting in 1986 and ending in 1994 Duke’s run of seven Final Fours in 10 years also sent Phil Henderson, Danny Ferry, Alaa Abdelnaby and others to three Final Fours.

Michigan State made it from 1999 to 2001; the only Spartans fortunate enough to be a part of those three teams were guard Charlie Bell and forward Andre Hutson. North Carolina’s members include star Bill Bunting from the 60s and point guard Ed Cota from 1997-2000.

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With fewer significant college players completing four full seasons, the already rare achievement of the Three Fours Club is becoming even more uncommon. We know this because Kentucky reached the Final Four in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015 without adding a single new member to the club. No Wildcat appeared in Final Four games in three of those years.

That means the four players who were members of UCLA’s Final Fours teams from 2006-08 under Ben Howland, including guard Darren Collison and forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, were the most recent to join the Three Fours Club.

When Wisconsin lost five of six games in February and sunk deep enough in the evaluation of the NCAA selection committee for the Badgers to be assigned a No. 8 seed, it appeared there would be no chance to add to the membership this season. Then Koenig and Hayes took over.

If they get to Phoenix, they’ll have earned it. Hayes and Koenig never have been passengers on the road to the Final Four. Not the first, second or, potentially, the third time.

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