Nate Wolters' easygoing on-court disposition belies the basketball passion in his belly.
“When we were recruiting him, I think other people saw his calm demeanor and misread it as disinterest,” South Dakota State coach Scott Nagy said. “People were concerned whether he was in-tune enough.
“It always looks like he's in second gear, or that he's not playing real hard.”
Once overlooked — the Jackrabbits were the first and one of the few Division I teams to offer a scholarship — Wolters has used his basketball obsession as fuel in becoming one of the most recognizable names in college hoops this season.
He's a candidate for many national player of the year awards.
He's on track to become the first player since the NCAA began keeping assists as an official statistic in 1983-84 to twice average 20 points, five rebounds and five assists in a season.
And the 6-foot-4 point guard from St. Cloud, Minn., is projected by some as an early second-round NBA draft pick this June.
Wolters will visit the Ralston Arena with his South Dakota State teammates on Thursday for a 7 p.m. game against UNO.
He's the most highly decorated player to come to Omaha to face the Mavericks in perhaps decades, and he's maybe the best player UNO has faced all season while battling the likes of Wisconsin, Iowa State, Texas Tech and Nebraska.
Wolters, though, injured his right hip while being fouled on a driving layup in the first half of Saturday's BracketBusters loss at Murray State. Though he finished the game, he missed practice time and wasn't available for interviews this week while undergoing treatment.
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“He's been limited, but I expect that he'll play,” Nagy said.
Wolters averages 22.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. He shoots 49.9 percent from the field and 41.5 percent from 3-point range for the Jackrabbits, who are 21-9 and 12-3 in the Summit League.
South Dakota State would clinch a share of the Summit's regular-season title and the top seed for the league tournament with a victory Thursday.
Wolters scored a Division I season high of 53 points Feb. 7 against Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne, and he dropped 30 on Alabama and 28 on New Mexico in high-profile road matchups. He followed up his 53-point game against IPFW with 36 against Oakland.
“You have to prepare for him in so many ways,” Mavs coach Derrin Hansen said. “In transition. Off ball screens. Off penetration into the gaps. He can hit stand-up jumpers and floaters, just a little bit of everything.
“You hope you can slow him down a little bit and that he misses some shots that he normally makes. But he's still going to get his share.”
While Wolters can score, he's equally adept — and at his best — in running an offense.
He scored 13 points the first time UNO played South Dakota State this season, a 78-63 Jackrabbit win in Brookings on Dec. 1 as South Dakota State bolted to a 30-point first-half lead.
“Everyone in the country is ready for him, but he's still averaging what he's averaging,” Hansen said. “But the thing is, he's got good guys around him. He gets the bulk of the attention, but he's got guys who can post up, post up and shoot, spot up and shoot.
“They're really efficient, and their coaching staff knows what it's doing. If you try to take something away, they'll find something else to exploit.”
Wolters is known to spend hours on his own working on his game. Stories have chronicled his idea of relaxation — doing ballhandling drills in the team lounge while watching NBA games on TV. That's after spending hours after practice shooting.
Gym rat doesn't go far enough in describing Wolters.
“It's a passion for him,” Nagy said. “More than for anyone I've ever seen.”
Meanwhile, the Mavs, since they opened the Summit season with blowout road losses against championship contenders North Dakota State and South Dakota State, have recovered for a respectable first season in league play.
UNO (11-18, 6-8 and fifth in the Summit) may be able to see how far it has come this week, with the Jackrabbits and Bison coming to town.
South Dakota State was No. 79 in realtimerpi.com as of Wednesday afternoon, while North Dakota State was No. 86. For comparison, Northern Iowa of the Missouri Valley Conference was No. 73, fourth in that league behind Wichita State, Creighton and Indiana State.
Down the road, with Denver (No. 76) joining the Summit next season, the league would have five teams in the top 119. The Valley also has five.
Hansen said the Mavs got a firsthand look at what to expect in the Summit during that opening weekend on the road. It was toward the end of their 37-day, early-season stretch with no home games.
“At that point, the road trip was just starting to wear on us, and they both hit us in the mouth early and often and we didn't respond very well,” Hansen said. “It was an eye-opener. It showed us as a staff some things we had to work on, and it opened the players' eyes to the size, skill and talent level of our league.”
Wolters' arrival, along with others in his recruiting class, has been transformative for South Dakota State. the Jackrabbits — a former Division II power — had been struggling in their Division I transition.
Nagy said he's impressed with the strides UNO has made.
“I've known Derrin a long time, and he's a good coach,” Nagy said. “He's done a good job, and basketball is going to be a focus in that athletic department now.”
Nagy noted that his team didn't win a Summit road game until its third season in the league.
“and they've won three this year — two of them in one weekend,” he said. “They're way ahead of where we were.”
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