PHILADELPHIA -- On the day before his Wisconsin basketball team was to play its NCAA tournament first-round game against Pittsburgh, Nigel Hayes decided to take a walk and check out the famed St. Louis Gateway Arch.
Along with a few of his teammates, he was sitting in the park, just outside of the barriers that surround the under-construction landmark site, when Tom Izzo walked by. The Michigan State coach had the same idea, to grab some fresh air and maybe a jog on the day off before the Spartans' game against Middle Tennessee State.
Spying an opportunity, Hayes walked over to Izzo and asked the coach the question most everyone wants to know about his Spartans team this time of year.
“What," he said, “makes your team so good in March?"
Izzo laughed it off, joking that it was getting great players that make him look good.
“He said, ‘No coach, I’m serious. What is it? What is it about you guys? C’mon tell me,’” Izzo told ESPN.com. “He really wanted to know. I thought he was kidding, but he was serious. I was impressed with that."
The abrupt coaching change at Wisconsin, necessitated by Bo Ryan’s sudden retirement in December, is not the only thing that has impacted the Badgers’ slower path to success this season. This also is the first time in 15 years that Wisconsin doesn’t have a senior in its starting rotation, an absence of leadership and experience in a season when the two were prevalent in college basketball.
Hayes, a junior who played a key role in last season’s run to the Final Four, is the clear choice to fill the void. He has welcomed it, as his tongue lashing after the Northwestern loss is seen as a pivotal point in the Badgers’ turnaround. But even this late in the game, Hayes says he’s still trying to learn how to lead.
That’s what prompted him to press Izzo for an honest answer.
Izzo told Hayes that Michigan State’s success was about former players staying in touch with the team's current ones, explaining the expectations of being a Spartan, but even more, it’s about having a player-coached team. He proceeded to detail what exactly he meant by that, talking about players willing to be in charge in practice, in the locker room, in the dorms, at the team hotel, on the charter, essentially from the first minute of the day until the last.
He even teasingly chastised Hayes, asking why he invited only a handful of guys to visit the Arch instead of the whole team.
“There can’t be any slip ups or distractions," Hayes told ESPN.com. “He told me that older guys, leaders -- and that’s me -- we have to make sure the team comes together all of the time."
That very night, Hayes was in his hotel room. It was 2:30 in the morning, his team’s first-round game against Pittsburgh just 18 hours away, and he was scrolling through YouTube, looking for empowerment videos. He stumbled upon one that mentioned a book, James Allen’s "As A Man Thinketh."
Hayes googled the title out of curiousity. It was only 22 pages, so Hayes immediately downloaded a copy and read it, gobbling up the message as he interpreted it:
“If we think about winning the national championship -- and let’s face it, that’s everyone’s goal in this tournament but some people are afraid to say it -- then we will act that way and do the things that are necessary," Hayes explained.
Two pages best summarized that theme -- about a mind being like a garden that can only grow when positively fertilized -- so Hayes took a screenshot and, right there in the middle of the night, sent it out on the team’s group text.
The Badgers went out and promptly beat Pittsburgh. Two nights later, on Bronson Koenig's heroics, they ousted No. 2-seed Xavier.
Hayes can’t say for sure whether he would have read the book with the same intent had he not spoken to Izzo, but he does believe it’s all coalesced at exactly the right time -- for the Badgers and for him.
Continuing an end-season skid, Hayes has not shot well in this tourney -- just 5-of-27. While he’s not thrilled with that, he’s really not worried. He has done everything else well -- defended, rebounded and, above all else, he has led.
“Who knows, but isn’t that the way the world works,” he said. “Me meeting Coach Izzo, watching that video, hearing about the book and it’s all talking about the same thing. Everything happens for a reason, right?"
Izzo, who couldn’t help but make some gallows humor about how the Badgers followed his advice with a first-round win better than his own Spartans did in their first-round stunner, was surprised at how much the chance encounter impacted Hayes.
“It was just a little thing," he said.
Perhaps to him, but definitely not to Hayes.
“I thought it would be a secret, like I’d have to climb to the top of Mount Everest and visit with a Buddhist monk to find out," he said. “But he was nice enough to share it, so I’m not about to forget it."