PGs will play key role in NCAA opener

March, 21, 2013
3/21/13
9:15
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- During his first open gym in college, Nate Wolters drove down the lane on the court on the South Dakota State campus and had fellow freshman Tony Fiegen right in front of him.

Fiegen jumped up and felt an odd sensation behind him. The rim started to bend. Then, the ball went through the net.

“It was the first time I had ever been dunked on,” Fiegen said. “I knew then he was going to be a good player.”

What Wolters has become, though, still is somewhat surprising. The 6-foot-4 point guard has turned into one of the nation’s top players for No. 13 South Dakota State. He’s a point guard who can score in bunches and who comes off a ball screen and can either take the ball himself or find the open man.

If it sounds familiar to fourth-seeded Michigan, it should. Its point guard, Wooden Award finalist Trey Burke, is almost the same way, only 4 inches shorter than his South Dakota State counterpart.

They are the catalysts of their NCAA-tournament teams, and theirs is an intriguing matchup among Thursday's games.

[+] EnlargeTrey Burke
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTrey Burke will have his hands full with taller South Dakota State counterpart Nate Wolters.
“We are similar compared to our teams,” Burke said. “He’s so valuable to his team’s offense. It is my job to make him uncomfortable and take him out of rhythm as much as possible.”

Michigan prepared for it over the past two days by using senior guard Eso Akunne to simulate Wolters and what he does, which is more of a hesitation-based game off the ball screen than Burke, who uses his speed and a similar move to slip past defenders coming off the screen.

Burke and Wolters likely will see a lot of each other. While Akunne said Michigan has used a varied amount of Michigan defenders on him in practice, South Dakota State said Wolters will guard Burke, hoping his height advantage causes some problems for the 6-1 Burke.

Wolters has experience there, as he matched up against Murray State point guard Isaiah Canaan last month. Canaan scored 22 points on 8-of-15 shooting, including five 3-pointers. The Racers won 73-62; Wolters had 18 points on 7-of-10.

“Just my length, forcing him to take tough jump shots, that’s my goal,” Wolters said.

Length, though, is just one part of what makes Wolters one of the top players in the country -- and a difficult matchup for Michigan. His experience, and an added jump shot, have been critical.

Last season, Wolters said teams would often dare him to shoot out of the ball screen, and it didn’t always go well. So he continued what he has been doing for the past two seasons with his roommate, SDSU student manager Austin Miller. Almost every night this summer, he would call Miller around 10 p.m. and head to the gym at South Dakota State.

Wolters would shoot. Miller would rebound on the rare Wolters misses.

“He misses a shot and he apologizes for you having to chase down the rebound,” Miller said. “He missed two in a row and he goes, ‘Sorry, man.’ I don’t get it.”

The apologies, Miller said, have come less frequently as Wolters’ shot improved, adding yet another layer to what the do-it-all point guard can do. When he gets in the lane Wolters becomes exceedingly dangerous, much like Burke.

He knows his teammates so well -- they have been playing together for multiple seasons -- that he knows where and how to find them.

“When he has the ball, it’s almost like a Peyton Manning-type approach,” IUPUI coach Todd Howard said. “The ball is going to the right person at the right time every single time.

“Whether it’s him for 3 or him on the drive or him getting fouled and finding the hot hand for a guy inside or out.”

Burke is the same way, and Howard, the only coach to face both players this year, said their command of everything is what makes them similar.

In a game where the loser is done for the year, it could come down to which one is able to make the other the least comfortable.

“It will come down to a matter of will,” Burke said. “Will and heart. It has nothing to do with physical advantages.”

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter

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