When the North Carolina locker room opened to media members on Wednesday a swarm of reporters from Wisconsin crowded around J.P. Tokoto, the Tar Heels' junior guard who is a Wisconsin native.
Later, after the throng had cleared away, I asked Tokoto if anyone had brought up the fact that he's from Wisconsin, and that UNC is playing Wisconsin in an NCAA tournament West Regional semifinal.
“No, you're the first,” he said, and then laughed.
Tokoto had expected this kind of thing – that his roots would be among the pregame story lines entering Thursday night. He's from Menomonee Falls, Wisc., which is about 75 miles east of the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison.
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Bo Ryan, the Badgers coach, recruited Tokoto hard. Tokoto had been a well-known prospect long before he wound up at UNC, what with his athleticism and propensity for dunking – more on that momentarily.
His Wisconsin roots, though, weren't enough to make him want to stick around and play for Ryan.
“The deciding factor was coach and coaching styles,” Tokoto said on Wednesday. “Coach (Roy) Williams, they use a run and gun type offense. Get up and down. And I like to play fast. I like to get up and down, make plays. I just felt like this offense and this team was better for me.”
So Tokoto headed south, to North Carolina. When the NCAA tournament bracket was revealed he knew there was a good chance he might find himself playing against Wisconsin, and against players he grew up competing alongside, and against, in high school and AAU competition.
Among Wisconsin's players, Tokoto is closest with Sam Dekker, the 6-foot-9 junior forward.
“Just because we've been together since eighth grade,” Tokoto said.
By the eighth grade, two important things had already happened for Tokoto. One of them involves dunking, and the other one set the future course of the UNC basketball program. We'll elaborate on that one first.
In the seventh grade, Tokoto attended a basketball camp at Wisconsin. Marcus Paige, the UNC junior point guard, also attended that camp. Tokoto and Paige had never met each other before then and didn't know each other.
“I forgot the name of the dorm,” Tokoto said. “It was close to the (arena). And I didn't know who he was. He didn't know who I was.”
But there began their relationship. Tokoto and Paige kept in touch and years later Williams asked Tokoto about which point guards in his class most stood out to him. Tokoto passed along Paige's name, Williams began recruiting Paige and here we are.
So by the eighth grade Tokoto and Paige had built a relationship that altered the course of Williams' program. And also by the eighth grade, Tokoto was dunking. In fact, he was dunking by the seventh grade. And, in fact, he was dunking even before then.
“I was dunking at the end of sixth grade,” Tokoto said.
He doesn't remember exactly how tall he was when he first dunked. Maybe 5-foot-10, he said. Maybe 6-foot. Somewhere in there. And it just kind of happened one day at the end of a practice, the way kids just mess around at the end of practices.
One day he couldn't dunk. The next he could. The years went on. Tokoto developed into a top prospect – his athleticism and dunking ability played a role – and then headed south for college.