MADISON, Wis. – A pair of talented freshmen have exceeded expectations for Wisconsin, quelling coach Bo Ryan's preseason concerns by helping the undefeated Badgers climb to a No. 3 ranking.
"Will youth be served or will the youth get served? I don't know. We'll have to wait and see," Ryan said at the team's preseason media day.
So far, the youngsters seem to be all right.
On a team that has just one senior in the rotation, freshmen Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig have come on to help the Badgers to a 16-0 start, the best in school history.
Wisconsin, 3-0 in the Big Ten and a half-game behind first-place Michigan State, travels to Indiana (11-5, 1-2) on Tuesday.
Hayes, a 6-foot-7 forward, and Koenig, a 6-3 guard, benefited from Wisconsin's five-game exhibition tour of Canada in August and usually are the first players off the bench at their respective positions.
"They're two guys that are physically probably beyond where normal freshmen are, but also mentally are very mature in terms of their basketball IQ and knowledge of the game," associate head coach Greg Gard said.
"Both also do a very good job of staying within and what their strengths are. They don't try to do something they're not capable of yet. They play within the formula of other guys on the floor."
Hayes, who has twice been selected Big Ten freshman of the week, is averaging 6.8 points in 15.4 minutes per game. In the three conference games, however, he is averaging 12.7 points, third-highest on the team, including a season-high 19 points in a 76-49 rout of Northwestern.
"I credit that to my teammates giving me the confidence that I can go out there and play with best of the guys," Hayes said. "And, not only just play and mill around, but stand out and become an impact player."
Junior guard Josh Gasser, who missed last season with a torn ACL in his left knee, started 30 games as a freshman and is familiar with some of the challenges Hayes and Koenig face.
"This summer, Nigel was a little frustrated defensively. He just couldn't figure out some of the ball screen stuff," said Gasser, who has returned to a starting role and 31.5 minutes per game. "I told him, 'Trust me, in a few weeks you're going to be our best player at it.' I have such confidence with him in the defensive end. He's such a good player. Offensively, we're at the point where if Nigel's got a one-on-one on the block, just give him the ball and get out of the way."
While expected to compete for some playing time, Koenig's role increased with the departure of sophomore guard George Marshall, who missed several games after sustaining a concussion in mid-November and then decided to transfer.
Koenig, the 2013 Wisconsin high school player of the year, is averaging 16.7 minutes per game, most among the reserves. In the Badgers' 95-70 victory over Illinois on Wednesday, Koenig played 22 minutes, making 3 of 4 shots.
"I thought I could get in the rotation, I wasn't really sure how much with George being the backup point guard," Koenig said. "That would have taken some of my minutes. So I think I'm playing more minutes than I expected to before he left."
Gasser said the freshmen are adjusting to the intensity of conference play, but that Indiana represents another level.
"Indiana's one of the greatest venues in college basketball. Indiana basketball is crazy. The students are back from break, so it's going to be a charged-up environment," Gasser said. "You've got a top-five team in the country coming in and they're trying to get that signature win. It's probably going to be an environment that these freshmen have never seen before."
Wisconsin has won 12 straight games against Indiana, tied for the most consecutive wins against the Hoosiers, matching Purdue, which won 12 straight from 1908 to 1914. Wisconsin also has won the past five meetings at Assembly Hall, the only team to beat Indiana five straight in that building.