WASHINGTON – Whenever Nigel Hayes stared down at his iPhone to text or check the latest tweet, another cameraman or group of reporters slid right into the seat next to him.
The Wisconsin Badgers are predicted to win the conference and gobbled up most of the attention at Big Ten media day on Thursday, like they did two seasons ago. Only it's Hayes instead of Frank Kaminsky who is the Big Ten preseason player of the year.
It wasn't that long ago, though, there were doubts whether the post-Kaminsky, post-Bo Ryan era would ever be that special again — and whether coach Greg Gard could ever get the program back to that national championship-contender level.
"You look back at some things that were happening, and it was such a whirlwind," said Gard, hired after spending last season as the interim. "That's a word that's appropriately used in describing the last 12 or 18 months for me."
After home losses to Milwaukee and Marquette and a 1-5 Big Ten start last season, the Badgers weren't giving Gard the best audition for the permanent job to replace Ryan, who retired last December.
With Wisconsin in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in nearly 20 years, fans in Madison wondered about the direction of the program. And players played as if they also lacked confidence.
But the Badgers were still less than a year removed from an appearance in the NCAA championship game in 2015. They finally resembled that team in mid-January, winning seven in a row. Wisconsin finished the season in a four-way tie for third place at 12-6. They return most of the team that ended up making a Sweet 16 run.
"It really was not so much about [Gard]," Hayes said. "It was more about us and what we were doing. Our biggest change was playing to the best of our abilities. A lot of that was attributed to confidence. A lot of guys weren't able to believe in themselves and didn't trust themselves. We kind of took care of that at the end of last year."
A year ago, Wisconsin was trying to figure out how it would stay among the conference's elite without stars Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, who moved on to the NBA. But the Badgers now return Hayes, senior guard Bronson Koenig and sophomore forward Ethan Happ. All three players were on the preseason All-Big Ten team.
"Coach Gard has been on the staff for many years," Koenig said. "We're totally used to him. He has the same philosophies as Coach Ryan. It's not really much of a change at all. It's more so the confidence of the team and putting our egos aside. That's going to be the biggest issue with this team. If we can come together like we did when we went on a winning streak last year, then we'll be the best team in the country."
Like Kaminsky before him, Hayes decided to return to school to chase a title. But he also carries a chip on his shoulder after being told through the NBA draft underclassmen evaluation process that "I wasn't good enough."
"Now I got a year to get better," he said. "I'll be able to get my degree, be able to spend another year with my guys, my brothers and teammates, have fun in college and chase that national championship that I haven't gotten yet. A lot can be accomplished without going pro."
Indiana, Michigan State and Purdue have the talent to make it a four-team race for the Big Ten title. But there's no question Wisconsin is the team to beat going into the season.
"Each team has lost some key people, whether it be Indiana or even a Purdue," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "Wisconsin has lost the least. So I think everybody has [the Badgers] picked to win it, and rightfully so."