Nate Wolters might not have a Sports Illustrated Player of the Year award under his belt or a selection to the U.S. Basketball Writers Association All-America first team, but the South Dakota State point guard is one of the few players good enough to inspire a catchy slogan: “Naters gonna Nate.”
Possibly the best player no one has seen play, the often-overlooked Wolters could give Michigan (12-6 Big Ten, 26-7 overall) fits on the defensive side of the floor. Whether he’s labeled as a pass-first guard that can score, or a score-first point guard that can pass, the 6-foot-4 guard had Michigan coach John Beilein gushing about his ability to initiate the Jackrabbits’ offense. When describing Wolters’ all-around game, Beilein didn’t know where to start.
“He has a great ability to make the right pass at the right time, instantaneously,” Beilein said. “He gets many more assists by not taking the extra dribble and hitting the open man. What he’s really good (at), which is very unusual for players of his size, is his runners. Whenever he can see what we call a ‘bubble,’ where there’s an open area of the court and the basket is open, he’s attacking.”
The Summit League Player of the Year leads South Dakota State (13-3 Summit League, 25-9), averaging 22.7 points, 5.8 assists and 5.6 rebounds a game. He’s one of just five players since 2000 to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game, and he’s the only player to accomplish the feat twice. He also shoots nearly 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc. Wolters has scored 30 points or more in a game four times this season, including a 53-point outburst against Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne in early February.
But while the Jackrabbits’ offense starts and ends with Wolters, he isn’t their only impact player. South Dakota State has four players who average double figures in scoring and have a low-post presence in 6-foot-8 Jordan Dykstra, who averages nearly 13 points and eight rebounds per game. All four of their players that shoot more than three 3-pointers a game all shoot better than 35 percent from beyond the arc.
“They can spread you out,” Beilein said. “There are many times when there’s nobody underneath the basket and there’s five guys that we have to guard, so that’s a challenge.”
The Wolverines hope to get freshman forward Glenn Robinson III involved in the offense early on, and Beilein has said they will need either him or freshman guard Nik Stauskas to be a third scorer for the team to find success in the tournament. Michigan is 17-1 when Robinson scores in double digits, and while it says something about the forward’s clear contribution in the box score, it underlies a more important point.
When Robinson is active, he’s crashing the offensive glass, running the fastbreak and making off-the-ball cuts to the basket, and there are very few players in the country that can match up with his athleticism. South Dakota State’s preference for playing an up-tempo game will certainly benefit Robinson and could lead to a big game.
“I’m going to do whatever I can to help out my teammates and help get the victory,” Robinson said.
The Wolverines will, as usual, look to sophomore guard Trey Burke and junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. to lead the way. Based off playing experience, Michigan is the eighth-youngest team in the country and has only three players in its current rotation that saw minutes in last year’s NCAA Tournament. Burke will do his best to make sure the underclassmen understand the magnitude of the event.
“Teams are just as hungry as we are, teams are trying to get where we are trying to get,” Burke said. “We’ll get beat if we come out (slow), so I think the sense of urgency will definitely raise from this point forward. I think you will see a team that is similar to the team you saw in the beginning of the year.”