And now, the target is firmly affixed to the Golden Gophers back. When the top 25 poll results were announced this afternoon, the Gophers were ranked #14 by the AP and #21 by the coaches. Any talk of being a sleeper team or underrated or under the radar evaporated immediately. Now the hard work of justifying and keeping the ranking begins.
The first test for the top 15 Gophers comes in the form of a top 15 player. Nate Wolters deservedly received a lot of attention at the end of last season as he led South Dakota State to their first NCAA tournament appearance, and had a bit more attention in the pre-season when articles breathlessly describing all things “to watch” were being published. Now that the season has started, Wolters and the Jackrabbits have returned to the low-major reality when no one cares unless they have a reason to care. So far this season there isn’t much reason to care. They played Alabama and Hofstra tough a full 40 minutes, and lost both games by a single possession. They managed to beat Marshall, Tennessee State, and North Dakota all by single digits. For a team that was hoping to secure an at-large NCAA tournament bid if necessary, things haven’t worked out how they hoped.
The problem is not Wolters, who has done more than anyone else in the country for his team. He is scoring 21 points per game with six rebounds, six assists, and two and a half steals. He leads the team in all categories except rebounding. He is shooting 49% from the field, 42% from the three-point line, and has a 3-1 assist to turnover ratio. If only he had more to work with. Only one other Jackrabbit, Jordan Dykstra, is scoring in double digits. The 6’8” junior does not provide much of a post presence and spends most of his time hanging around the perimeter. Tony Fiegen is only 6’7”, and has made the only three-pointer he has attempted. Brayden Carlson is mostly a three-point specialist with occasional accuracy problems.
For the third season in a row, South Dakota State basketball is built around really good offense and really bad defense, but the offense is still not quite good enough. There is really nothing bad about the Jackrabbit offense which ranks 20th in the country, as they rank in the top 64 in inside shooting, outside shooting, free-throw shooting, taking care of the basketball, and free-throw shooting. They don’t get to the free-throw line particularly often, would be well-advised to get a few more offensive rebounds, and have too many shots blocked. All this is a symptom of having only one player 6’9” or taller that plays meaningful minutes. That lack of height could pose a problem against Minnesota’s length and accompanying shot blocking prowess.
The highlight of the Jackrabbit defense is they don’t foul often, though that may be because they are too far away from the players they are supposedly defending. They rank 146th in shot blocking, and don’t rank in the top 200 in any defensive category, bottoming out 280th in defensive rebounding and 256th in defending two point shots.
South Dakota State is a decent state school from the upper midwest, but this shouldn’t be competitive. Yes, the Jackrabbits are mostly Minnesota kids and they have dreamed about knocking off the Gophers as some sort of revenge for not getting undeserved scholarship offers, or something. The Gophers are the better team, and the better team will win.