Tonight's game vs. Wisconsin tips at 8 p.m. CT and is broadcast on ESPN and 1500-a.m.
Wisconsin may have to change its game plan to account for the suddenly efficient Mo Walker (who they were rudely introduced to last month), but the Gophers have a new defensive focus as well:
The reserve freshman has been an intriguing piece of the Badgers' rotation from the start of the year, but it seems he's only getting better. Coming off the bench, the 6-7, 250-pound forward actually leads the team in percentage of possessions used, getting involved 25.3 percent of the time according to kenpom.com.
And despite that high number, Hayes has been very efficient offensively.
"He's kind of had a great impact on that team," Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. "They're playing him a lot more. When he played vs us he wasn't really the focal point of their offense, and he's become that. And he's really, really hard to guard. I've said before I thought [Indiana's Noah] Vonleh was the best freshman in the league -- [Hayes is] pretty close. And I think they see that and they've been going to him. He hurt us our first game -- bad. And I'm sure they see that and they're going to come at us with him."
Against Minnesota, Hayes finished with 14 points and three rebounds and was a major factor for Wisconsin. The Gophers would have had much more trouble holding the Badgers down had they been able to get anyone else other than Sam Dekker going.
Then, after two "off" games against Purdue and Northwestern, Hayes has been huge in the last three, posting offensive ratings of 137, 118 and 117 in games against Ohio State, Illinois and Michigan State.
Hayes has been one of the best in the nation at drawing fouls, and is capable on the defensive end as well.
Pitino said on Wednesday that he thinks the Gophers might have a small advantage offensively when Hayes is in at center -- where the Badgers have played him in extended stretches -- and the frontcourt is smaller, but he's more worried about what the dynamic newcomer is doing on the other end of the court.
"I guess when they put Hayes in, it's an advantage for us offensively, but it's a disadvantage for us defensively, so you worry more about the defensive side," Pitino said.
A few other notes on tonight's matchup:
*Last time around, Walker was a big force against the Badgers' interior D. This time, not so fast, Pitino said. Wisconsin, like most opponents from here on out, will be ready. "I'm sure they're going to talk a lot about what they're going to do defensively vs. him. He's probably gaining a lot more respect from people in the league ... He's got to be prepared if they dig on him with a guard or if they trap. He's a pretty good passer. So we've got to continue to go inside to whoever it is Elliott [Eliason], Mo, and Joey King has been pretty good inside lately as well."
*Silver linings can be found in just about everything. The bright spot for being without Andre Hollins for a while, Pitino said, is that the Gophers have aggressively pursued an inside attack, something the team seemed hesitant to commit to before. "I think we somewhat abandoned the outside game and started really going inside," Pitino said. "We figured out that we can go inside and we can win some games. Because we had to, without Andre. And you're seeing success from Mo Walker. Joey King, you're seeing success from. Because they now know offensively, this may be because they may be able to shut down Malik or they may be able to shut down Austin. Well, now you're going to go inside and that's been the positive through it all."
*Joey King on playing Wisconsin: "It definitely gets us fired up -- especially me and the guys who have been here. And it's really a big opportunity for us ... it's something that people from Minnesota really look forward to."
*Andre Hollins said Kohl Center is one of the most fun places to play in the Big Ten. But it's not louder than Williams Arena. When the Barn gets rocking, Hollins said, there are few places that get louder (he mentioned Assembly Hall in Bloomington, as one of them). "It gets rowdy in there," Hollins said of Kohl Center, where he has never won wiht the Gophers. "It's a fun place to play It's an NBA-style arena, hosts like 17,000 fans. It's always a great game. They beat us on a buzzer beater last year so we have to get revenge on that from that standpoint. But it's an awesome place to play."