It was a tip from a former point guard for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team that got the ball rolling on finding a player to fill that position in its 2018 recruiting class.
Tai Strickland, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound senior from St. Petersburg High School in Florida, signed a letter of intent Wednesday to play at UW starting next season. UW also announced the signing of Joe Hedstrom, a 7-foot center from Hopkins, Minnesota.
Hedstrom, who will be a walk-on next season, joins Strickland and Taylor Currie, a forward from Michigan who signed in the fall, in a class that is finally complete after some twists and turns. The eventful cycle included the decommitment of in-state standout Tyler Herro three weeks before the start of the early signing period last fall.
The final piece of the puzzle was Strickland, who chose the Badgers over a pair of other finalists from the Big Ten Conference, Rutgers and Minnesota.
UW assistant Howard Moore served as Strickland’s primary recruiter and began what was a relatively speedy process after hearing about Strickland from his close friend and former teammate with the Badgers, Tracy Webster.
The Badgers were scrambling for a point guard after coming up empty a few times over the winter when Webster, UW’s all-time leader in assists, told Moore that former NBA point guard Rod Strickland had a son who was a late-bloomer.
Moore got his hands on some highlight clips of Strickland and was impressed.
“It intrigued me enough to make me get on a plane to fly down to Tampa,” Moore said, “and drive over to St. Petersburg.”
Coaching staffs sometimes spend months, even years, recruiting players. That process includes gathering background information to find out if the prospect will even be a good fit.
For Moore, time was running out and he had to cram as much investigative work as he could into a small window. He and Rod Strickland, who played at DePaul, have mutual friends in Chicago, so Moore called around to ask questions about Tai. While visiting Strickland’s high school, Moore spoke with guidance counselors, secretaries and even one of Strickland’s math teachers.
“Everyone just raved about the kid,” Moore said. “It was amazing. It was almost like it was too good to be true. Once I had a chance to talk him, I was just like, ‘Man, this is our type of kid.’ I knew that right off the bat just visiting with him. His first impression really blew me away.”
UW coach Greg Gard echoed that impression Wednesday in a statement that announced the signing of Strickland. Gard said Strickland “has already bought into the totality of team and trying to figure out what he can do to help Wisconsin.”
Moore said he had to remind himself not to get too excited about Strickland’s film because it was a highlight tape. But when Moore saw him play in person, he became convinced Strickland could help the Badgers.
“The first thing that stood out to me when I watched him play in person was his defensive intensity,” Moore said. “He can be a lockdown defender when he wants to. He probably got some bad calls in high school because he was so physical and so aggressive on the ball. He has good anticipation off the ball. I think from that standpoint, he kind of reminded me of Michael Flowers. … He has that type of ability defensively.”
Strickland averaged 17 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals as a senior to earn first-team All-Pinellas County honors. He helped St. Petersburg reach the semifinals of the Florida Class 8A state tournament.
“He’s a true point guard, so offensively, he’s really good with the ball. He rarely takes the ball where it doesn’t belong on the court, where it gets him in trouble, sees the floor, has good vision, knows how to get to the paint and has good idea of what to do when he gets there,” Moore said.
“Obviously, the speed of the game and the size of the players is going to change, so he’s going to have to make some adjustments. But I think the biggest thing is the fact that he’s going to be hard to keep in front of you and once he gets to the rim, he knows how to finish. He can finish really well, but he can also find the open man once the lane is shut off on him and that’s that what we need, guys that can really make plays.”
Gard said Strickland, who grew 11 inches during his time in high school, “is just starting to scratch the surface of his basketball ability, and the system we have will allow him to realize his full potential as a collegiate point guard.”
As for Hedstrom, Gard said in a statement “his natural size and strength, combined with a hungry attitude to improve, gives him an excellent chance to really develop and excel in our program.”
“Joe’s progress as a player has been trending in the right direction since we saw him several years ago,” Gard added. “The improvements in his game, combined with how successful he has been in the classroom and community told us he was a great fit for what we are all about as a program.”