Longtime friends Dekker, Tokoto playing for bragging rights, too

Sam Dekker (left) and J.P. Tokoto often would spend the night at each other's house in high school when they played for the same AAU team. While they never dreamed of playing against each other in a game of such magnitude, Dekker says facing his friend only makes it sweeter.

LOS ANGELES — In the middle of a locker room media session Wednesday afternoon, a reporter pulled his iPhone and showed Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker an image featuring plenty of familiar faces. In the photo, from left to right, were J.P. Tokoto, Bronson Koenig and Dekker standing on a basketball court with a hand wrapped behind each other and smiling.

It was a snapshot in time from four years earlier, before each player went on to become standouts at their respective college programs. And Dekker, seeing the picture, lit up by recalling exactly where it took place (at an AAU tournament in the Wisconsin Dells) and what coaches showed up to watch (Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski and Bo Ryan).

"We have a bunch of pictures like that," Dekker said. "It brings back memories of tournaments we went to together."

Now, for the first time, Dekker and Koenig will match up against Tokoto in a tournament as opponents. No. 1 seed Wisconsin (33-3) plays No. 4 seed North Carolina (26-11) at 6:47 p.m. CT Thursday inside Staples Center. And in addition to all that is at stake in each team’s quest to advance beyond the Sweet 16, there is the matter of bragging rights among friends.

Dekker, Tokoto and Koenig were among the most decorated high school players in Wisconsin the past decade. Given their immense talent level, it was only natural the three found themselves all playing on one of the premier AAU basketball teams in the state — the Wisconsin Playground Warriors.

Koenig, who was a year younger, quickly moved up to join the older team. But Dekker and Tokoto became especially close friends. Both players recalled having sleepovers at the other’s house whenever summer tournament schedules would allow.

"I spent countless nights over at their place," Dekker said. "Then we coordinated so sometimes we had practice up north a little bit more, so J.P. would stay at our place. We did that for three straight springs, so that was pretty fun. You just grow a relationship. Do some immature kid things and get in some trouble together."

Added Tokoto: "We just had that tight brotherhood throughout high school, and we’ve all stayed pretty close."

Dekker was named Wisconsin’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2012 after averaging a state-best 35.2 points per game while leading Sheboygan Lutheran to its first-ever WIAA state title. Koenig earned the state’s player of the year honor a year later for La Crosse Aquinas and averaged 17.0 points and 4.4 rebounds per game while leading his school to a state championship. Both players opted to play for the Badgers and remain close to home.

J.P. Tokoto, Bronson Koenig and Sam Dekker, during their AAU days.

Tokoto, meanwhile, was a three-time first-team all-state selection. In his senior season at Menomonee Falls High School, he averaged 24.6 points and 11.5 rebounds. Though he had a scholarship offer from Wisconsin, he chose North Carolina instead.

"A lot of people were upset, but a lot of people were happy," Tokoto said. "So it’s a 50-50 kind of thing. I knew that was going to happen wherever I chose. There’s haters. If I chose to go to Wisconsin, maybe UNC fans would have reacted the same way. You never know. I didn’t focus on that. All I could focus on was where I was going and what I was trying to accomplish."

How strongly did Tokoto consider Wisconsin?

"I get that question a lot, man," Tokoto said. "Not even in the media. Just in general. Even when I go home. Wisconsin was a home school for me. If I was to stay in Wisconsin, I would’ve been a Badger. But I wanted to get out, felt like this playing style was best for me, and it’s worked out so far."

All three players have become integral parts to their respective teams. Dekker is second at Wisconsin in scoring (13.3 points) and third in rebounds (5.4) and has started the past 74 games for the Badgers. Koenig took over as Wisconsin’s starting point guard when Traevon Jackson sustained a broken right foot in January, and UW is 18-1 since then. And Tokoto, who earned ACC all-defensive team honors last season, is averaging 8.4 points and 5.5 rebounds and has started 33 of North Carolina’s 37 games.

Only one side can win Thursday. And both Dekker and Tokoto are looking forward to the challenge.

"It’s going to be pretty fun," Dekker said. "Lifelong friends that have done well in their respective programs. This is exactly the situation you want to be in as an athlete, going up against people you respect. That fact that we’re friends makes it even sweeter."

Added Tokoto: "Seeing him now, it’s like damn, we’re about to play against each other. I never really expected that."

Hayes on Kobe: Perhaps it was no coincidence that Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes wound up using the locker that belonged to Kobe Bryant inside the Los Angeles Lakers locker room Wednesday. Bryant is Hayes’ favorite player — and teammates knew better than to try and take Bryant’s locker from him.

"We would have given that to Nigel," Badgers forward Frank Kaminsky said. "Everyone knows how much he loves Kobe. He’ll defend Kobe until the death. He loves Kobe, so giving it to him would’ve been the right choice."

Hayes’ infatuation with Bryant began, he has said, when he watched a YouTube video this summer of Bryant playing a kid one-on-one during a tour to China. After the kid scored one basket, Bryant challenged him to a full-court game and destroyed his challenger. From there, Hayes placed Bryant above LeBron James on his list of favorite players.

Upon hearing that Hayes did, in fact, have Bryant’s locker, Hayes appeared downright giddy.

"This is Kobe’s locker?" Hayes said. "OK. Well, here we are in Kobe’s locker. I probably will sleep in this locker tonight so that way I can absorb Kobe powers and ability tonight. Hopefully it’ll help me play well tomorrow."

What if a teammate had challenged him for the locker?

"It probably would’ve gotten close to a fisticuffs brawl if someone would’ve tried to sit here," Hayes said. "But luckily everyone knows that I was going to get this locker."

Frank the Tank meets Frank the Tank: One of the perks of playing in Los Angeles is the opportunity for Wisconsin’s players to experience a life they never would back in Madison. And for Frank Kaminsky, that meant meeting two of his comedic idols: Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly.

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Kaminsky participated in a segment for the television show Access Hollywood in which he interviewed Ferrell, who once starred in the movie "Old School" as Frank "The Tank" Ricard — a nickname that has been bestowed upon Kaminsky.

"It was nice to meet somebody I’ve looked up to for a long time," Kaminsky said. "Obviously I love Will Ferrell. I can probably tell you every line in the ‘Step Brothers’ movie."

This season, Kaminsky has blossomed into a star as the national player of the year front-runner. But meeting Ferrell and Reilly were at the top of his list of memories.

"Outside of being on the court, that was the coolest part," he said.

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