Joe Wieskamp is one of the best basketball prospects to come through the Mississippi Athletic Conference in the league's 30-plus years of existence.
The Muscatine senior is on the verge of becoming the league’s all-time leading scorer, has led what was a downtrodden program to consecutive substate finals and is the favorite to become the conference’s first Mr. Basketball recipient, awarded to the state’s top senior, in mid-March.
But how well can Wieskamp, an Iowa signee, recruit?
Bettendorf junior DJ Carton has made a couple unofficial recruiting visits to Iowa City in recent months. In doing so, he has crossed paths and had multiple conversations with Wieskamp.
“I’m in his ear a decent amount trying to get him to join us,” Wieskamp admitted. “I’m trying to let him enjoy the recruiting process and do his own thing, but at the same time I’m letting him know we want him pretty bad.”
Carton, in fact, said they've formed a friendship.
"He's trying to persuade me to become a Hawkeye, and I respect that, but it's a long process," Carton stated. "I want to check out all the colleges."
The MAC has produced several Division I basketball players in recent years — Nicholas Baer, Cortez Seales, Marlon Stewart and Brady Ernst — but none of them have generated the national buzz Wieskamp and Carton have.
For the first time since Rivals started its rankings system in 2003, the MAC has two four-star recruits and two players listed in the nation’s top 75.
Wieskamp, a 6-foot-6 wing, is 40th overall in the 2018 class. Carton, a 6-2 point guard, is 70th in the 2019 class.
They have brought additional exposure and publicity to the conference. They are certain to bring more spectators to MAC gymnasiums this winter.
“Absolutely,” Bettendorf coach Curtis Clark said. “When you have two kids like that on a national level, the general basketball fan wants to come out and see how good they really are. It is special, not something you witness every day.”
Davenport West coach Mark Bigler remembers a similar situation when he coached former Hawkeye and NBA player Ryan Bowen at Fort Madison.
“We filled our gym up because he was going to Iowa,” Bigler said. “That’s what Muscatine is going to experience. And depending on where (Carton) commits, you’ll have Wisconsin, Illinois or Iowa fans looking him up.
“It is nice because it allows them to see other kids in our league. It creates a more exciting atmosphere for the kids, and it already is pretty good.”
Assumption graduate Ed Conroy is an assistant coach at Minnesota recruiting Carton. Because of his schedule in the past, as a head coach at Tulane and The Citadel, he's never attended the annual bi-state Genesis Shootout in mid-December. He plans to make the trek Dec. 16.
"We were mapping out dates where he could come watch D.J. play, and he was really excited about having the opportunity to come for the Shootout," Clark said.
Besides excitement in the stands, it invigorates opposing players in the conference to be at their best when they match up with Wieskamp or Carton.
“When you have a group of kids that are a little more blue collar like our group, there is pride in that,” Pleasant Valley coach Steve Hillman said. “We’re not a team that has any Division I players or individuals that people are going to specifically come watch, so our kids get fired up for those opportunities to play against those really good players.”
Wieskamp sparks a community
Muscatine coach Gary Belger describes Wieskamp as a throwback.
"He's like a player from the 1970s or 1980s," Belger said. "He has great talent, a marvelous mind and a totally unselfish attitude."
Wieskamp has been front and center of Muscatine's program since he walked through the doors as a freshman.
He averaged 18.6 points and more than 6 rebounds per game for what was a 7-15 team.
The production has improved each year — 21.6 points as a sophomore and a state-leading 30.4 points last year. Muscatine has won 15 games each of the past two winters, and he was named Iowa's Gatorade Player of the Year last season.
In Friday's season opener at Washington, he registered 37 points in three quarters.
"Wieskamp is as good of a high school player as our program has ever faced," Hillman said.
It has brought attention to Muscatine, a school with minimal basketball tradition.
"Having a kid come out of Muscatine like this, one of Iowa's highest recruits ever, is crazy," teammate Jackson Foulk said. "Being a one high school town, it really gives the community a lot to rally behind with a player of this magnitude."
Wieskamp broke the school's all-time scoring record early in his junior season. He's 10 points from surpassing Ricky Davis (1,619 points) as the league's career scoring leader and could chase down Jeff Horner's total of 2,194 points as the all-time scoring leader in Iowa Class 4A.
"I never thought any of this would happen," Wieskamp said. "I didn't even think about anything like that and those kind of records. I wanted to go play.
"As the years have gone on, those things have popped up."
Wieskamp, who had 50 points in a game last season, shot better than 56 percent from the field and 41 percent from the 3-point line last year.
He followed it with a phenomenal summer. Besides thriving with the Iowa Barnstormers, he took part in the Adidas EuroCamp in Italy, coached by ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg, and was named one of 10 all-stars in the invite-only NBAPA Top 100 camp in Charlottesville, Va.
"The thing that impresses me most is how consistent his jumper is for his size and how smart he plays the game," Carton said. "He's really good at knowing what is and what isn't a good shot."
And Wieskamp has done it with humility.
He isn't one to gloat about his accolades on social media or showboat on the court after a highlight-reel dunk.
"One of the most impressive things about Joe is he never opens his mouth," Foulk said. "He never gets too high or too low. He just plays with an even-keel and wants to win.
"I've grown up with him since preschool. It is tough to get into his head."
The Muskies return only two other players with significant varsity experience. So for Wieskamp to get Muscatine over the threshold, he'll have to take on an even greater role in terms of leadership and production.
"I'm going to have to hunt my shot a little more," he said, "but at the same time look for my teammates. I've worked a lot in the last year with the ball, coming off screens and hitting pull-up jumpers, a lot of things to create my own shot."
The storybook ending would be to get Muscatine to its first state tournament since 2002 and just its third in the last 58 years.
"Honestly, it has never been about personal records," he said. "It is about getting this community and our team to Wells Fargo Arena."
Carton offers pile up
Basketball was not even Carton's primary sport growing up. He starred in the outfield with the Quad-City Hitmen and was on track to follow in the footsteps of his father, who played in the San Francisco Giants system.
Carton gave up his bat and glove for hoops after eighth grade. His family moved from Geneseo to Bettendorf.
"I grew up in this area coming to games, and all my family went here," Carton said. "We decided to move, and it was the best fit for me."
Carton was Bettendorf's point guard last season, helping the Bulldogs claim the MAC title and reach the Class 4A state tournament.
Still, he was a relative unknown in the recruiting circles.
That changed last spring and summer when Carton exploded on the AAU scene with the Quad-City Elite.
It led to at least a dozen Division I offers, the first high major coming from Wisconsin in June.
Illinois, Iowa, Iowa State, Marquette, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Creighton are among the schools that have sent coaches to Bettendorf this fall for an open gym to get a peek at Carton.
Other schools are jumping on board, too. Purdue, Indiana, USC and UNLV are among the latest to show interest.
"He's gotten a lot more explosive," Wieskamp said. "He wasn't nearly as good last year as he is right now. His whole game has changed a lot."
Carton has spent considerable time improving his 3-point shot and has added 30 pounds. He's around 190 pounds.
"The 3-point shot has opened up my game a lot more," he said. "It has made it easier for me to score or find my open teammates for shots."
With Bettendorf's experience and athleticism a year ago, Carton could serve more as a facilitator. He averaged just more than 10 points per game.
This year, he'll be counted on to score. A lot.
The southpaw had 24 points, nine rebounds and four assists in the season-opening 55-33 win over Cedar Rapids Washington.
"I'll be a lot more aggressive this year on the offensive end," Carton said.
"He's put a lot of time into this," Clark said. "He's one of the few kids I've had to pull back because he'll do too much at times. He just loves basketball."
It has resulted in a slew of college options and plenty of long conversations with coaches.
"It can get overwhelming at times, but I've enjoyed the process of talking to coaches and building relationships with them," he said.
Just don't expect a decision soon.
Carton said he doesn't plan to announce his choice until national signing day next November.
"I want to visit a lot of these places and see where the best fit is for me as a player and a person," he said.
Until then, Wieskamp will continue to deliver his sales pitch. Carton's grandfather, Gene Meeker, played basketball for Iowa in the 1950s.
But unlike Wieskamp, who grew up an avid Hawkeye fan, Carton did not have any particular allegiance.
"I think there are a lot of colleges that have a style of play I could fit into — fast break, uptempo and aggressive on offense," Carton said. "I just want to find that best fit."
In the meantime, Carton and Wieskamp, like many basketball enthusiasts, are looking forward to Dec. 19 and Feb. 2 — the two meetings between Bettendorf and Muscatine.
The teams split their two encounters last year.
"I don't know if we'll be guarding each other," Wieskamp said, "but I can guarantee you the energy in the gym will be pretty high.
"It'll be a lot of fun."