Wisconsin men’s basketball forward Nigel Hayes was somewhat surprised with how easy his freshman year of college basketball was.As a true freshman last season, Hayes surprised everyone when he averaged 7.7 points and 2.8 rebounds in 17.4 minutes per game.Hayes showed improvement as the season went on, scoring in double figures four straight times in February and three times in March. He was named the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year and was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team while playing a pivotal role for the Badgers as they marched to the Final Four.But it was the ease Hayes found last season that gave him even more motivation to work hard this offseason. This season, he’s made a name for himself on a team that has two possible NBA first-round draft picks, and it’s the reason why as of Jan. 14, he is second in the Big Ten in double-doubles, behind only fellow teammate Frank Kaminsky.“Last year, I saw that college was actually a little easier than I thought it would be,” Hayes said. “By me working as hard as I did, it was trying to put myself in the best spot to give myself a chance to be the best player that I can be, not only for the team, but go out there and be the best player on the court if I can be that.”And at times this season, Hayes has been the best player on the court.Through 18 games, Hayes’ 12.3 points per game is tied for second-best on the team with Sam Dekker and behind Kaminsky (those likely first-round NBA draft picks) and his 7.1 rebounds per contest are second, only behind the seven-footer Kaminsky. Four times this season Hayes has been the leading scorer for the Badgers and nine times he’s either had the lead or been tied for the team lead in rebounds.Rebounding was possibly the weakest part of Hayes’ game last season, and his ability to attack the glass this season is why he’s been able to reach double figures in rebounds five times already this season. Despite all of his impressive accomplishments last season as a freshman, Hayes didn’t log a single double-double but this year already has four.“[Rebounding] was just something that I needed to be more conscious of doing in the games,” Hayes said. “A rebound is just something that you have to make an effort to go out there and do, and I’ve been trying to be even better at that.”“Each game I get a chance to go out there and try and do a little better, and hopefully now with these double-doubles starting, I maybe can keep that going and try the best I can to help the team as much as I can,” Hayes said.In addition to his surge in rebounding, Hayes has been able to extend his game to the perimeter and also has the ability to knock down shots from beyond the arc — something that was non-existent last season. His three-point shot developed this summer, and he showcased it in practice before the season. Hayes did not attempt a single three-point shot last season, but this season has gone 14-for-37 (37.8 percent) from three.While being able to provide a key three-pointer from a forward like Hayes is certainly a valuable asset to a basketball team and something that Hayes feels as if he can do, simply being able to extend the defense out to the three-point line to open things up on the inside helps out any offense, especially Wisconsin.Hayes’ ball-handling skills, which makes his ability to get to the basket that much easier while playing where he feels most comfortable, down low, has become more fluent and effective. Hayes dropped his weight from 250 pounds to 235 in the offseason which has paid off in his swiftness and explosiveness.“Obviously everybody focuses on the three-point shooting and sees those go in but it’s the matter in which he’s able to play with comfort on the perimeter and attacking and making plays and the explosiveness,” Wisconsin associate head coach Greg Gard said. “But yet he’s understood and realized where his bread and butter is, and that’s with his rear end on the block because he can be very effective there too.”“He’s become a better rebounder, and I think he’s getting better defensively,” Gard said. “Obviously he’s gotten better with ball handling and some of those things, but I think just consistency will be a big step for him going forward.”And while Hayes’ game has improved immensely since Wisconsin’s loss to Kentucky in the Final Four, his formula for success on the court is a simple one. It’s a formula that hopefully produces another magical run to the Final Four.“It’s whatever the defense gives me,” Hayes said. “If a guy’s off me, I’ll shoot it, if he’s on me, I’ll try to go around him, so I just try to simplify the game as much as possible.”If Hayes can continue to improve and simplify the game, he could very easily turn into one of the premier players in the Big Ten and all of college basketball, much like Kaminsky and Dekker.