On paper, tonight's ACC/Big Ten Challenge game between No. 5 UNC and No. 9 Wisconsin is a game that the ACC needs to win in order to exit the challenge with a measure of pride.
However, it's not unreasonable to think coach Roy Williams and coach Bo Ryan had this matchup circled on their calendars a long time ago. In fact the recruiting rivalry between these two coaches dates back to 2002 when Williams, as a coach of Kansas, and Ryan went hard after Wisconsin native and McDonald's All-American Brian Butch, who ultimately ended up at Wisconsin. Since then, Williams and the Tar Heels are determined to dip into Wisconsin whenever possible.
“It’s become a little rivalry; I think you can say that,” said Ritchie Davis, head coach of the Wisconsin Playground Warriors. “It’s become an interesting thing with North Carolina in our state.”
Ryan knows that the foundation for his program rests within the borders of his state and extends into Big Ten recruiting territory. There are 17 kids listed on Wisconsin’s official roster and 16 of them are from the Badgers' region. Ryan will go to great lengths to stave off invaders and has had to do so in recent classes.
“Let’s be honest,” Davis said. “Wisconsin had room for two [recruits] in 2012 and there were two kids they wanted. Wisconsin had two to give and it was a two-kid class and North Carolina came in and snagged one.”
Wisconsin kept All-American candidate Sam Dekker (Sheboygan, Wis./Lutheran) home, but lost small forward J.P. Tokoto (Menomonee Falls, Wis./Menomonee Falls) to the Heels. Wisconsin jumped on Dekker before he “blew up,” but with Tokoto, UNC was omnipresent and fought off the Badgers.
Then there was 2013 combo guard Bronson Koenig (Lacrosse, Wis./Aquinas), who committed to Wisconsin last summer but not before North Carolina offered him a scholarship. The interesting part about this offer is that Williams bent his own rule to recruit Koenig. Prior to Koenig, Williams was observing an NABC request not to offer sophomores scholarships. However, Williams sensed that Wisconsin was in good shape with Koenig and did not want to lose the kid because of a request that few others took seriously. Wisconsin won out anyway, but the recruiting battle lines were drawn and awareness of each program’s position was heightened.
“I don’t think Coach Williams and his staff have been deterred,” said Davis, regarding losing out on Koenig. “I think it’s more of a challenge. It’s a good thing and I think they’ll continue to come in when they see a guy who is worthy to come in and play for them.”
So, where’s the next Badgers versus Heels run-in? Maybe it’ll be for 2014 small forward Kevon Looney (Milwaukee, Wis./Hamilton) or 2015 forward Diamond Stone (Milwaukee, Wis./Dominican). Wait a minute, both those guys are in Marquette’s backyard, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Regardless, jot down the names and pay attention.
As for tonight’s game in Chapel Hill, well, think of this as two competitive head coaches who will grind it out between the lines tonight and get back to chasing the next ones tomorrow. Either way, they’re going to run into each other quite a bit during college hoops' second season.
“Based on what I’ve seen there’s a little bit of everything,” Davis said of the rivalry. “In the last 18 months with Coach Williams and Coach Ryan, I think they certainly respect each other.
“With the fan base, I’m sure there’s a little dislike with Coach Williams coming in and trying to get guys out of Wisconsin. There’s going to be a lot of people [in Wisconsin] watching the game tonight.”
There will be a lot of recruits watching too.