North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams knows his way around Iowa. He's been to Monona and Ames, Iowa Falls and Marion. Sioux City, too, on a couple of occasions.
It seems strange, this product of Tobacco Road spending so much time in a place where corn and beans are king. But these trips have produced a bountiful harvest. Williams has left with some of the most prized prospects this state has produced.
Williams got Raef LaFrentz, Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich to play for him at Kansas, and Harrison Barnes and Marcus Paige signed on the dotted line to become Tar Heels.
"A pretty impressive list," said Williams, who spoke at the Iowa Basketball Coaches Association annual fall clinic Sunday in Des Moines.
Four first-round NBA draft picks, all selected 12th or higher. Plus Paige, a junior point guard from Linn-Mar of Marion and a preseason first-team all-American by many publications.
"Marcus Paige is one of the greatest things to ever come out of Iowa," Williams gushed. "He's a coach's dream. We're overpaid as it is. If they were all like Marcus, we'd pay our schools to let us coach."
The Tar Heels will play Iowa in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge on Dec. 3 in Chapel Hill, N.C. Paige will face two of his former Martin Brothers AAU teammates in Hawkeye juniors Adam Woodbury and Mike Gesell.
Woodbury, a 7-foot-1 center, could have joined that list of Williams success stories but he elected to sign with Iowa coach Fran McCaffery instead.
"He's one that we tried very hard to get," Williams said. "We went into his home. Nice young man, nice family. I thought for the way we played, he would really be good. We wanted him, no question. They did a nice job of recruiting him."
Talking about his success stories in Iowa and the upcoming season were an escape for Williams from the academic fraud case tainting the North Carolina athletic department and his program.
"This has been the biggest hurt I've ever had," said Williams, who coached the Tar Heels to national titles in 2005 and 2009. "And we know that we didn't do anything wrong. We know we tried to do the right thing. And yet there were some things that went on there that weren't right. We're terribly embarrassed. Terribly sad. Terribly hurt."
North Carolina, whose 2013-14 season came to an end with an 85-83 loss to Iowa State in a third-round NCAA Tournament game, is sixth in the preseason USA Today Coaches poll. Iowa is 25th.
"I don't know much about their club right now," Williams said of the Hawkeyes. "I'm trying to find out a little bit about our club. But Iowa will be very good. I've known Fran for a long, long time."
Paige became the first sophomore point guard at North Carolina to earn first-team all-ACC honors since Phil Ford in 1976 after scoring a team-high 17.5 points a game and averaging 4.2 assists.
"He is the consummate point guard," Williams said. "A quarterback on the floor, a leader, everything you'd want from a guard. He can score, pass and he was our best defensive player."
Paige plays with a high degree of confidence. And sometimes, there are consequences. The Tar Heels were leading Iowa State in that NCAA game last season, 76-68, with under 4 minutes to play. Paige came down the floor and missed a 3-pointer early in the shot clock. The Cyclones' Naz Long countered with a 3-pointer in transition and his team carried that momentum to the victory.
"At the time I didn't really like the shot," Williams said. "And it didn't go in, so you definitely don't like it. But at the same time, I've always felt you need to give kids freedom. If they're good and confident, then they'll help you a lot more making big plays like that. He made so many shots for us last year. And regretfully, that one didn't go in. But we didn't get any stops, either."
Williams said Iowa will continue to be a state where he comes to recruit in the future. And why not? It's been a gold mine for him.
"Great times," Williams said. "I've been so lucky here."