By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 17, 2013
After battling for a No. 1 seed for much of the regular season, the Michigan men’s basketball team received a No. 4 seed in the South Region on Selection Sunday.
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But after a brief scare over the weekend, the Wolverines will have to travel just one hour to play their opening-round matchup against South Dakota State at the Palace of Auburn Hills (Mich.) on Thursday at 7:15 p.m. Should Michigan (12-6 Big Ten, 26-7 overall) win, it’ll advance to play the winner of Thursday’s Virginia Commonwealth-Akron game on Saturday, also at the Palace.
Freshman forward Mitch McGary described his excitement at an “all-time high” moments after seeing Michigan’s name appear on CBS’s selection show.
“It’s what I’ve always dreamed of,” McGary said. “To play in Auburn Hills is a blessing, to play so close to our university, to hopefully have a great fan base there.”
The Jackrabbits (13-3 Summit, 25-9) won last week’s Summit League Tournament after winning the regular-season crown as well. South Dakota State is led by one of the country’s most exciting players, point guard Nate Wolters. At 22.7 points per game, the senior was the nation’s fourth-leading scorer. He also averaged 5.6 rebounds and 5.8 points per game, while shooting an efficient 49.3 percent from the field.
The Jackrabbits played just two power-conference teams this season, losing to both Alabama and Minnesota. While they took the Crimson Tide to the brink, losing by three, the Golden Gophers — Michigan’s and South Dakota State’s only mutual opponent — ran away with a 24-point win. But the Jackrabbits did come up with a quality non-conference victory, winning at No. 15 New Mexico, 70-65, in December.
Michigan coach John Beilein admitted that he knows “very little” about his opponent, other than knowing that “they were the Jackrabbits right away,” he said with a laugh. But after briefly looking over their season statistics, he’s concerned with the amount of upperclassmen in South Dakota State’s rotation.
All five of the Jackrabbits’ starters are upperclassmen, and four are double-digit scorers.
“The thing in the mid-major programs — and they are a legit mid-major program right now — is that they have juniors and seniors, and they’re all over the place,” Beilein said. “We have to play like juniors and seniors in that game.”
While none of the Michigan players made available to the media Sunday were particularly knowledgeable of South Dakota State, each was well aware of Wolter’s capabilities.
“He’s a great player from what I’ve seen,” McGary said. “He can do anything on the court; he has many intangibles to his game.”
The man Wolters will match up against, sophomore point guard Trey Burke, said he’s never watched the Jackrabbits play, but another Wolverine guard, junior Tim Hardaway Jr., met Wolters while the two were at last summer’s Kevin Durant Skills Academy.
Though Michigan should have a considerable home-court advantage in the opening weekend, Michigan State also drew the Auburn Hills pod, and its fans — along with most other non-Wolverine fans — will likely be cheering on the underdog. Hardaway was also quick to note that playing so close to home has its drawbacks.
“It’s great to be close to home, but it can also be a negative thing because you’re so caught up in distractions,” he said. “We’ve just got to do a great job at limiting our distractions.”
The Wolverines struggled down the stretch, going just 6-6 in their last 12 games, but those games all came against gritty Big Ten schools. Many of the players and Beilein noted that facing teams outside of their own conference would be refreshing.
While many teams in the Big Ten slow the game’s tempo down and play more physically than Michigan — especially in the post — the Jackrabbits feature a guard-oriented offense that likes to run up and down, eliciting high-scoring affairs, something that could play to the Wolverines’ advantage.
“That is not a style you get a great deal in our league,” Beilein said. “We guard some of that everyday in practice.
“They’re very similar to us. I do not know if that’s good or bad — I’m not smart enough to know that. I do know that we better be able to defend the three, that’s for sure.”
If Michigan advances out of Auburn Hills and into the Sweet Sixteen, it’ll head to Arlington, Texas’ Cowboy Stadium, likely to face top-seeded Kansas.