IOWA CITY, Iowa — The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball program officially announced its 2011 recruiting class with little fanfare, the standard operating procedure under Bo Ryan.
The news release sent out on Nov. 10, 2010, a Wednesday that marked the start of the fall signing period, began with a paragraph announcing the addition of four recruits. The remainder of the 1,033-word document included high school stats and accomplishments for the quartet — Traevon Jackson, Frank Kaminsky, George Marshall and Jarrod Uthoff — and a statement from Ryan on each player.
Nationally, nobody was fawning over the class, either as individuals or as a collective unit. All four players were considered three-star prospects by both Scout and Rivals, and none of them were rated higher than No. 22 nationally at his respective position.
Of course, the best evaluations of recruiting classes come four years down the road, and this one is intriguing to assess on a couple of fronts.
For starters, half of the four-man class was wiped out by transfers. Marshall left UW midway through his third season and is now a fifth-year senior guard at South Dakota State, where he leads the Jackrabbits (21-7) in scoring with 16.2 points per game.
Uthoff, meanwhile, bolted after one season and ended up at Iowa, not without some controversy. He’s blossomed into a star for the No. 8 Hawkeyes (20-6, 11-3 Big Ten), who host the Badgers (17-10, 9-5) Wednesday night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Evaluate the class as a whole, regardless of the uniform each of its members were wearing by the end of their time in college, and you’ll find a textbook example of why recruiting rankings should always be taken with a grain of salt.
The Badgers’ 2011 class included a national player of the year (Kaminsky); a potential All-American (Uthoff); a three-year starter who’s now playing in the NBA Development League (Jackson); and the first freshman to start at point guard for Ryan since his debut season as a head coach 28 years earlier (Marshall).
“I thought we had a good class at the time,” UW assistant coach Gary Close said. “But I’m always cautious, because you just never know how guys are going to develop. I’ve seen guys like Frank, that maybe are not highly thought of, really take off. And I’ve seen guys that come in with all kinds of press clippings and don’t match with the hype that they arrive with.
“The true evaluation is what kind of game do they leave with. That class, as it looks now, was a very, very strong class. It turned out to be a really good class.”
‘Typical freshman class’
Jackson, Kaminsky, Marshall and Uthoff arrived on the UW campus in the summer of 2011 along with Jordan Smith, a walk-on.
Josh Gasser was one of the returnees from a team that won 25 games and advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 the previous season. He remembers the freshmen on the 2011-12 team as a quiet group who quickly formed a bond as classmates.
“To me, it was a typical freshman class, nothing crazy,” said Gasser, who finished a stellar career with the Badgers last season and is now playing professionally in Germany. “Most freshman classes, you can see the guys are pretty good but maybe need a year or two to understand everything. And that’s the way it was with that group, too.”
First impressions were being formed during pickup games that summer, and opinions varied on which player was the cream of the crop.
Had a poll been taken back then, Uthoff probably would have been selected the most likely to succeed.
“I thought Jarrod was going to be by far the best player in the class,” said Smith, the only senior on the UW roster and the last Badger standing from that group of 2011 prospects. “He had the long, lanky NBA-type body. I remember thinking that he was going to be really good.”
Smith also remembers Marshall “lighting everybody up” that summer. Marshall redshirted as a true freshman, but he was impressive on the scout team while going against star point guard Jordan Taylor in practice.
“Everybody was talking about him,” Smith said. “I thought George was going to be this incredible point guard.”
After Gasser got hurt prior to the start of the 2012-13 season, Marshall became the first freshman to start at point guard for Ryan since Randy Kazin did it for UW-Platteville in 1984-85. Marshall was inconsistent as a redshirt freshman and was moved out of the starting lineup after six games, replaced by Jackson. But Marshall flashed some potential later in his freshman season by scoring 20 points in 15 minutes off the bench during a loss at Iowa.
He was passed by Bronson Koenig in the rotation early in the 2013-14 season and announced in early December that he was leaving the program. He landed at South Dakota State, where former UW standout Joe Krabbenhoft is an assistant coach.
Jackson, who was a sophomore when he took Marshall’s place in the starting lineup, ended up starting 74 consecutive games before sustaining a broken foot last season as a senior. He’s now a member of the NBA D-League’s Iowa Energy, where he’s averaging 5.6 points in eight games off the bench.
Kaminsky was a reserve his first two seasons before exploding as a junior. He ended up leading the Badgers to back-to-back Final Four appearances, won national player of the year honors after averaging 18.8 points and 8.2 rebounds as a senior and was selected ninth overall by the Charlotte Hornets in the 2015 NBA draft.
By the end of his UW career, Kaminsky was the poster boy for a program that has had success developing players who fly below the radar during the recruiting process.
“You could see potential,” former UW athlete Ben Brust said of Kaminsky and the others in the 2011 class. “And that’s kind of how it is with a lot of the recruits that come to Wisconsin. We get a lot of three-, four-star guys and it’s kind of up to you to figure out, what are you going to be like, how are you going to develop?
“It’s a lot of work in the gym and a lot of teaching from the coaches. You’ve kind of got to be a sponge.”
Uthoff ‘a terrific player’
In the aforementioned news release announcing the 2011 class, Ryan praised Uthoff for having the entire package. “His length and skill set will allow him to play different positions and, as he develops and adds strength to his frame, he will be a great fit within our system,” Ryan said.
But Uthoff never appeared in a regular-season game for the Badgers. He made it as far as the scorer’s table late in the first half of the 2011-12 season opener vs. Kennesaw State, but didn’t get in the game and decided at halftime that his mind wasn’t made up about whether or not to redshirt.
Uthoff did end up redshirting and, by the following spring, he was gone from the program. It was a messy departure that both sides could have handled better, but UW interim coach Greg Gard said earlier this week it’s “water under the bridge now” and praised Uthoff for his perseverance and improvement.
While there’s no doubt Uthoff would have been a valuable asset in UW’s lineup as a fifth-year senior, playing the what-if game isn’t such a simple endeavor. For example: Where would Uthoff have fit the previous two seasons in a frontcourt that included Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes?
Instead, Uthoff went back home to Iowa, where he felt the Hawkeyes’ up-tempo system better fit his skills. He sat out a season per transfer rules and played a combined 1,632 minutes the next two seasons, a total he almost certainly wouldn’t have reached with the Badgers.
That playing time sped up a growth process and now, in his final season with the Hawkeyes, Uthoff has become a star. The 6-foot-9 forward is second in the Big Ten in scoring at 18.8 points and even if he isn’t named the conference’s player of the year — Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine is the favorite — Uthoff is a strong candidate for first-team All-America honors.
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence and has added some things to his game,” said Close, who recruited Uthoff. “But I’m not surprised. We thought very highly of him. He’s a terrific player.”
Uthoff has come a long way — particularly in the strength department — since he arrived at UW as a skinny 18-year-old. But even then, his teammates at the time could see a raw prospect with a nice shot and a long arms that made it difficult to get off shots.
“It’s funny, because I’ve seen him getting all these blocked 3-point attempts,” Brust said of Uthoff, who leads the Big Ten with 2.9 blocks per game. “And I remember in open gym thinking, ‘Who is this lengthy freshman blocking my shots? I never get my 3s blocked.’ He can come out of nowhere and those spider arms will block it.
“He’s got all those intangibles that you just can’t teach, where you’re 6-9, long arms, sneaky athletic with a skill set.”
Brust was asked who ended being the bigger surprise, Uthoff or Kaminsky. His answer: Both.
“Did I think they were both going to be All-Americans? If you asked me (then), I would probably say no,” Brust said. “But that’s a credit to how much work they’ve put in. They landed in some good situations and took advantage of those opportunities.”
Smith looks back at the 2011 class and calls it “something special.” But Smith, like Brust, Gasser and others, never could have imagined it would be this special.
“We had high hopes for that whole class,” said UW assistant coach Lamont Paris, who joined the program two months before the class was signed. “But you just never know. There’s such a fine line between achieving your potential and not.”