Nate Wolters (USA Today Sports Images)
Each year, a couple of deserving league champs with upset potential or an intriguing star player will bow out unexpectedly in their conference tournament, depriving us of seeing how they'd fare on college basketball's biggest stage.
That South Dakota State avoided such a fate in the Summit League tournament this week is terrific news for the sport. The Jackrabbits guaranteed the nation the chance to see star guard Nate Wolters shine in the NCAA tournament for a second straight year by taking down rival North Dakota State 73-67 in Tuesday night's Summit League title game.
Wolters showcased his full arsenal against the Bison, sinking impossibly deep threes at the shot clock buzzer, out-battling taller players for rebounds, setting up his teammates for open looks with no-look passes and finishing at the rim himself. The senior finished with 27 points, six rebounds, six assists and four steals, pretty good for a kid who had to be persuaded he was good enough to play Division I basketball four years ago.
Unlike last year, when South Dakota State won the Summit League tournament as an under-the-radar No. 2 seed behind dominant Oral Roberts, the Jackrabbits have been the favorite since the preseason.
Sometimes they've handled that pressure poorly, such as when Belmont clobbered them in Nashville in December or when North Dakota State and South Dakota both upset them in January. More often, however, they've lived up to expectations, amassing a 13-3 league mark, decisively winning three conference tournament games in four days and throwing in a seed-bolstering upset at New Mexico in late December.
South Dakota State isn't a one-man team, but Wolters is definitely the catalyst.
The future NBA draft pick averaged 22.5 points and 5.8 assists and improved his outside shooting percentage after a dip last season. That three other Jackrabbits also average in double figures is somewhat a product of Wolters, both his impressive passing and vision and his ability to draw defenders away from his teammates.
It was important for Wolters to be near his best Tuesday night because North Dakota State is a quality team in its own right. Were it not for a midseason injury to Taylor Braun, the Bison may have been able to hold off South Dakota State for the league title.
Braun kept North Dakota State competitive into the final minutes with his 23 points on Tuesday, but not enough of his teammates provided complementary scoring. The Bison also had no answers for Wolters, which contributed to South Dakota State shooting 47.8 percent from the field.
When the South Dakota State students poured onto the floor and mobbed Wolters after the final buzzer, it was a fitting salute to a player who has done a lot to revitalize a program that was hardly competitive in Division I prior to his arrival.
A year ago, Wolters and South Dakota State were competitive with third-seeded Baylor into the second half before the Bears' superior talent kicked in.
The Jackrabbits may spring an upset this year or lose by 20. But whatever they do, the NCAA tournament will be more intriguing simply because they're part of it.
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