A popular subplot of Thursday's NCAA regional semifinal game between Wisconsin and North Carolina is the recruiting connection between the two teams. Reflective of Wisconsin's rising stature in college basketball, the two programs have gone head-to-head for several prospects in the midwest over the last five years.
If you've heard the familiar name J.P. Tokoto more this week than any other week in your life, this is why: Tokoto, born in Rockford, Ill., is a Wisconsin native that spurned the home-state Badgers for Carolina blue.
Entering the 2010-11 season, Wisconsin knew it would graduate its starting frontcourt and therefore already had a wave of forwards waiting in the wings. But, as luck would have it, two of the most highly-touted wing forwards in state history were tearing up the prep circuit as mere juniors at the same time.
One of them, the quickly-rising Sam Dekker, had committed in a flash in June of 2010 before many coaches knew about him nationally. The other was Tokoto, out of Menomonee Falls near Milwaukee, whom Wisconsin had offered a scholarship in April of 2009, immediately following his freshman season. Tokoto received one of the earliest offers Bo Ryan has ever made, if not the earliest.
Despite the fact Ryan loved what a gem he had uncovered in Dekker and the two players filled similar positions on the court, Tokoto was so remarkable an athlete that no coach in his right mind would have said, "Thanks, but no thanks."
The Badgers had two open scholarships to hand out in the 2012 class due to the expected graduation of seniors Jordan Taylor and Rob Wilson. The staff honed in on Tokoto, reserving UW's final open spot for him (even holding out on UNC's Marcus Paige as a result). But Tokoto was destined for the faster tempo on Tobacco Road. After Duke pulled out of the race in the spring of 2011 by signing other players, Tokoto sped things up and announced his commitment to North Carolina live from a Dave & Buster's restaurant on the night of March 3, 2011, while Ryan and the No. 10 Badgers were busy earning a big road win in Bloomington over Indiana.
Wisconsin has continued to win ever since then, despite Tokoto's choice. The Badgers have gone 86-23 (.789) since Dekker stepped on campus, while UNC has won 75-32 (.701) during Tokoto's career.
In the fall after Tokoto's commitment, a third prep star with the Wisconsin Playground Warriors AAU team, Bronson Koenig verbally committed to the Badgers over the Tar Heels. Koenig, like Tokoto and Dekker, claimed his favorite team or "dream school" growing up was North Carolina, but he felt the draw to his home state school. All three will have play prominent roles in deciding which team advances to the Elite Eight on Thursday night.
Tokoto has come a long way in three seasons. He got limited minutes as a freshman behind a bevy of better Tar Heel wings, and when Tokoto did play his known shortcomings were magnified. He shot an 1-of-11 from three-point land and an abysmal 38.5 percent from the free throw line.
As a sophomore and junior, Tokoto has shown improvement as he's gotten steady minutes. His free throw percentage has risen from 50% to 61.5% and he's 12-for-32 (37.5%) from deep this season -- though oddly, his two-point shooting has dipped. This is the progress UNC fans expected more of from Tokoto. What is perhaps more surprising is that Tokoto has developed into a willing passer, posting a higher assist rate (24.3) than any other player on North Carolina or Wisconsin.
The irony is the same player Wisconsin was recruiting to be a highlight-reel addition to its roster has become a glue guy for North Carolina. Albeit a very, very exciting glue guy. Tokoto is averaging 8.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists for the Tar Heels and is Roy Williams' go-to perimeter defender. In fact, he registers among ACC leaders in both steals and assists.
Meanwhile, Dekker seems to finally be hitting his stride also, averaging 13.3 points and 5.4 rebounds and shooting acareer-best 70 percent at the charity stripe. While his three-point stroke is still a work in progress, Dekker is a projected first-round pick if he chooses to leave, while Tokoto isn't on the early entry radar. At best, Tokoto is considered a borderline first-round candidate in the 2016 draft.
So, back to the original question:
What would have been different if Tokoto signed with Wisconsin?
Follow me down the rabbit hole...
Nothing would have immediately changed roster-wise if Tokoto had committed, other than Zak Showalter not being on scholarship. One other thing I'm certain would have stayed the same? Jarrod Uthoff definitely still transfers.
However, the most obvious ripple effect is the very good chance Nigel Hayes never becomes a Badger in that alternate universe. Hayes was the last player in the 2013 class to sign. Playing what-if game in recruiting isn't always that black and white, considering that having a different number of scholarships available can shift a team's strategy. You might argue the Badgers would have held off on signing Riley Dearring or Jordan Hill, but I'd dispute that. In this case, having Tokoto on the roster makes the needs UW addressed with the other four players in 2013 (guard depth, shooting, true big man) even more pronounced.
It's very likely that instead of having either Dekker or Hayes for five straight seasons, Wisconsin would have had Dekker or Tokoto for only four straight years. This also assumes Tokoto would not have redshirted. Don't laugh -- Tokoto simply would not have played ahead of Dekker or the three senior forwards on the roster.
(And oh yeah, Wisconsin might be playing against Hayes at Ohio State instead.)
Because of George Marshall's transfer, Tokoto could have fit right in on this year's team in Hayes' slot. The Badgers would be worse offensively, but more formidable defensively. Imagine having both Tokoto and Josh Gasser available to defend the perimeter. Oh my.
If Tokoto had filled that last scholarship in 2012, Wisconsin's 2015 class would have also been affected though. The staff would have still saved the last spot for Diamond Stone, so either Alex Illikainen, Charlie Thomas, or Khalil Iverson would not have become Badgers.
Overall, it worked out well for Wisconsin. Hayes is a star, averaging 12.6 points and 6.4 rebounds for Wisconsin as a sophomore. He helped the team reach the Final Four last season and also added an irreplaceable personality to the team chemistry. From North Carolina's perspective, the Heels got the glue guy they needed with a run-and-gun pedigree. I'm sure all parties are happy with the way things turned out.
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