Brown: AAU friends will become NCAA rivals this week
IOWA CITY, Ia. – They first became teammates as 14-year-olds, playing for an AAU basketball team called the Iowa Stars. Marcus Paige and Mike Gesell were the guards, Adam Woodbury the center.
They remained teammates for three more summers, playing for Martin Brothers and winning a ton of games.
"Any time you've got Mike and Marcus leading the break, you're going to win a lot of games," Woodbury said.
When it came time to pick a college, they had plenty of options. Gesell, from South Sioux City, Neb., selected Iowa. So did Woodbury, an all-stater at Sioux City East who turned down a full ride from North Carolina. Paige, also offered by Iowa as a junior at Linn-Mar of Marion, selected the Tar Heels.
"Back in high school, we talked that maybe we'd get a chance to play against each other in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge," Woodbury said. "I can't believe it's happened already."
Iowa visits North Carolina at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Smith Center. And all three juniors will be in the starting lineup.
The teammates have become rivals. But the respect they have for each other, friendships built over four summers of criss-crossing the country together, remains rock solid.
"We're pretty close," Gesell said. "We keep tabs on each other, and we watch each other play."
Paige, who leads the fifth-ranked Tar Heels (5-1) in scoring at 15.2 points a game, has made the biggest impact at the college level. He was the leading vote-getter on the Associated Press preseason All-America team, and was also the Atlantic Coast Conference preseason player of the year.
"I'm very happy for him," Gesell said. "It's always nice to see a good friend succeed."
When Gesell watches Paige, one word jumps out: smooth. Gesell witnessed it as a teammate, and he sees it while watching tape of the Tar Heels in preparation for Wednesday's game.
"He's smooth out there," Gesell said. "He always has a plan for what he's doing. He's a preseason all-American. At the same time, he's able to get his teammates involved. He's not trying to get his. He's getting his within the offense and within the team."
Woodbury is not surprised by Paige's ascension to the top of the college game. He had that figured out as a 14-year-old.
"I saw something in him right away," Woodbury said. "He had special talent. It didn't matter where we were playing. He was getting to the rim, scoring at will, no one could stop him. You could already see at the time that he was very special."
Fran McCaffery got the Iowa job at the end of March in 2010, after the three had completed their sophomore seasons. McCaffery worked hard to establish a relationship with Paige and his family. But Paige had no idea what direction McCaffery would take a program he inherited that was coming off three straight losing seasons.
Take a leap of faith or go to your dream school? Michael Jordan's school?
"It was an easier call for him at that time," McCaffery said.
Williams also made a home visit to Woodbury in Sioux City. But the coach who successfully lured Raef LaFrentz, Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich and Harrison Barnes out of the state finally came up empty.
"He was a great guy, and I respect him quite a bit, but I just went a different way," Woodbury said. "I have a lot of respect for the things he's accomplished and the program he now has."
When Woodbury called Williams to tell him he had decided on Iowa, Williams told him, "Good luck, unless we play you."
Play you, they will.
"So now we've got that opportunity," Woodbury said.
This will be a big test for Iowa (4-2), its first true road game of the season in a building where Jordan's jersey is among those hanging from the rafters. Former teammates will be competitors for 40 minutes. Their friendship will outlast the one-game rivalry.
"The stuff Marcus is doing in college is pretty impressive," Woodbury said.
Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.