BROOKINGS, S.D. — By his own admission, Nate Wolters wasn’t much of a threat last season from the 3-point line.
The South Dakota State guard has sure turned things around. Wolters, whose evening routine includes taking hundreds of shots in an empty Frost Arena, said he worked hard this year to improve his outside shooting.
“I’ve shot a pretty good percentage this year, and I think that’s made the defense honest,” he said. “I think I’ve become a better passer, as well.”
Wolters, always a quiet Midwestern kid who leads by example, had the spotlight was on him earlier this season when he scored 53 points in a game, tops this season in NCAA Division I.
And now he and the Jackrabbits are back on college basketball’s biggest stage, facing No. 4 seed Michigan in the first round of the NCAA tournament today in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Wolters’ high school coach says there’s no player he’d rather see with the ball in the final seconds if the Jackrabbits have a chance against the Wolverines.
“When we needed a bucket, he definitely just seemed to always have the ball in his hands and make the right decision,” said Randy Jordan, who coached Wolters at St. Cloud (Minn.) Tech High School. “He’s always been a competitor and always been a go-to guy down the stretch. He probably hit five, six game winners for us in the three years that he played.”
Wolters, a 6-foot-4 senior whose only Division I scholarship offer came from South Dakota State, captured attention last season, first when he scored 34 points in a 92-73 victory over a University of Washington team that won the Pacific-12 Conference regular-season title, and later when the Jackrabbits made their first trip to the NCAA tournament, losing to Baylor, 68-60. A CBS Sports blogger even gave him his own slogan — “Naters Gonna Nate” — which has spread to T-shirts, arena signs and a Twitter hashtag.
He became a sensation again in February when he scored that school-record 53 against Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne and broke another mark with nine 3-pointers.
Jackrabbits coach Scott Nagy said he has heard people question Wolters’ defense, but the guard plays 40 minutes and a lapse can sometimes mean he’s tired. He said Wolters has great anticipation and is more athletic than people think.
“Nate is a tremendous defender when he decides he’s going to be a good defender,” Nagy said.
Jordan said Wolters was a good student but always thinking about basketball — even in the geometry class Jordan taught. Jordan would often see his star player spending nights and weekends at the Whitney Center working on his shot.
“He was a person that just loved to be in the gym and he always had a basketball in his hands,” said Jordan.
Wolters’ role on the court was different in high school, because the Tigers used a two point-guard offense.
“I thought he was more effective … getting the ball up the floor on the wing and attacking the basket for us,” Jordan said. “That’s what we used him for. We wanted to get the ball in his hands.”
Wolters was about 6-foot-1 as a high school sophomore, and he became more effective under the boards as he grew, Jordan said.
Wolters said his height has helped him lead South Dakota State’s offense.
“Most point guards aren’t as tall as 6-4, and I can definitely see over the defense a little better than smaller guards can,” he said. “When you get into those pick-and-roll situations, it’s a lot easier to throw across my body or make jump passes and see over the defense.”
North Dakota State coach Saul Phillips, whose team lost to the Jackrabbits, 73-67, in the Summit League tournament final, said Wolters’ height and ability to find the open man make him tough to defend.
“With Nate, he is so good at creating passing angles with his long arms,” Phillips said. “He makes passes that other guards just don’t make.”
Wolters said the Jackrabbits are more talented and experienced than last season, and knowing what to expect this year will help as they try to pull off an upset.
He said he’d like to continue playing basketball after college and he knows he’s caught the eye of some NBA scouts, but his concentration this week is on the NCAA tournament.
“Right now, I’m just trying to focus on winning,” Wolters said. “I’ve only got a couple more weeks of my college career left, so I’m just trying to make the most of it. It’s been a great experience, and we’re hoping that we can play a little bit longer.”