The Rides of March. ...And Beyond
Wolters was pioneer as prep, collegian
Nate Wolters’ basketball career has been one of breakthroughs.
If he continues to carry that calling card into the professional ranks, that could mean good news for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Wolters, the Bucks’ rookie guard, entered the National Basketball Association as a 2013 second-round draft pick out of South Dakota State University.
He had only one Division-I scholarship offer coming out of St. Cloud (Minn.) Tech High School.
But Wolters left both programs in far higher standing than they were before he played for them.
St. Cloud Tech wasn’t a Minnesota basketball powerhouse before Wolters arrived there in 2005.
“My school was more known for football than basketball,” Wolters said. “But lately it’s been pretty good for basketball. My junior year was the first time the school had made it to the state tournament since 1980.”
The Tigers didn’t just make a token appearance at Minneapolis’ Target Center during their long-awaited state trip in 2008.
Seeded fourth, they opened with a 79-68 Class AAAA (large school) quarterfinal victory over Cambridge Isanti as Wolters scored a team-high 21 points.
St. Cloud Tech fell 83-59 in the semifinals to top-seeded Minnetonka, but bounced back to beat Robbinsdale Cooper 84-71 in the third-place game. Wolters led all scorers with 22 points and went over the 1,000-point plateau for his career as the Tigers finished 29-3.
“That was cool,” Wolters said. “We had a lot of support. We were a school of about 2,000, so we played in the highest class.”
Wolters, who averaged 19.6 points and 6.5 rebounds as a junior, and teammate Alex Hanks made the all-state tournament team, which also included future University of Wisconsin player Mike Bruesewitz, who played for runner-up Mendota Heights Henry Sibley.
St. Cloud Tech had to survive a playoff scare to make its way back to state in Wolters’ senior season.
“My senior year, we were undefeated going to the section finals,” Wolters recalled. “We were down by 15 at the half against Buffalo and clawed our way back. We were down two with about 5 seconds left, and one of my friends, a senior on the team, hit a ‘3’ to win it with about a second left. That was pretty cool.”
Wolters said the Tigers changed the closing script from the movie ‘Hoosiers’ to win and advance.
“I actually had the kick-for the winning shot,” he said. “Being undefeated going into that game, it would have been terrible to lose and not make the state tournament. So we were pretty relieved we won that game.”
St. Cloud moved on to Minneapolis armed with a 29-0 record.
The Tigers, seeded fourth in the state field for the second straight year, got 17 points from Wolters and held off Winona 40-39 in the quarterfinal round before sustaining their first defeat of the season 55-36 to Minneapolis Hopkins in the semifinals. Wolters scored 17 points, while Hopkins – which went on to capture the state title – got 14 points from future NBA first-round draft pick Royce White and 11 from Trent Lockett, who finished his college career with Marquette University in 2012-13.
St. Cloud Tech once again displayed its resilience in the third-place game, beating Bloomington Jefferson 59-55. Wolters dunked the ball with 8 seconds to play to secure the victory and finished with a double-double of 27 points and 10 rebounds along with four steals.
Wolters and teammate Hanks were repeat all-tournament selections for the Tigers, joining Hopkins’ White and Lockett and future Gonzaga University standout Sam Dower.
Wolters averaged 24.3 points as a senior and became St. Cloud Tech’s all-time leading scorer with 1,767 points. He was named to the St. Paul Pioneer Press all-state first team.
When Wolters arrived in Brookings, S.D., for his freshman season at South Dakota State University, the Jackrabbits’ men’s basketball program had only been competing at the Division-I level for five years.
Wolters made 11 starts and was named to the Summit League All-Newcomer Team as a freshman.
“In my freshman year, our attendance wasn’t great,” Wolters recalled. “A lot of people were wishing the program had stayed in Division II, because it had been a power in Division II (even winning an NCAA College Division championship in 1963). People weren't really fond of going Division I when the program wasn’t having any success.
“Once we started winning a little bit, the fans really started rallying around us. We started getting sellouts for games. It was pretty cool to watch.”
Wolters averaged a team-best 19.5 points per game as a sophomore and became the first Jackrabbit ever named First-Team All-Summit League.
Wolters duplicated that selection twice, averaging 21.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and with 5.9 assists as a junior and 22.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists as a senior. More importantly to him, he helped lead SDSU into a new frontier.
“Our conference tournament was played in Sioux Falls, so those games were like home games for us,” Wolters said. “They sold out. We had 7,000 or 8,000 fans. It was a great atmosphere.
“The first time we went, in my junior year, it was like my high school team – we were down 15 or 17 at halftime and kept clawing our way back. We went to overtime to win the championship game (over Western Illinois). That was pretty cool.
“It was an advantage playing in Sioux Falls. Other teams didn’t like it too much. In most mid-major championship games you see on TV, there’s no atmosphere at all. Ours was crazy. It was nuts. I think the other teams enjoyed that, too.”
Wolters, the 2012 Summit League Championships Most Valuable Player, scored 19 points in SDSU’s first-ever NCAA Division 1 tournament game in 2012. The Jackrabbits lost to Baylor 68-60, but they proved a year later that they were no flash in the pan.
“We struggled a little bit in my senior year,” Wolters said. “We had a target on our backs the whole year, and we lost games we shouldn’t have lost. But it was pretty nice that we started playing well at the end of the year.”
The Jackrabbits, seeded first in the Summit League Tournament, peaked on cue again, defeating North Dakota State 73-67 in the title game.
“We were able to beat North Dakota State, our biggest rival, in the championship game,” Wolters said. “That was a fun game. Their coach is Saul Phillips, a former University of Wisconsin assistant, and their team had a lot of Wisconsin ties.”
SDSU automatically qualified for a second straight NCAA tourney appearance, but fell to eventual national runner-up Michigan 71-56 in the opening round.
Wolters averaged 22.3 points, 5.8 assists and 5.6 rebounds as a senior, ranking fourth nationally in scoring and 21st in assists and earning Third-Team All-American honors.
He became the first player in this century and only the third since the NCAA began keeping assists as an official statistic in 1983-84 to average 20 points, five assists and five rebounds in two separate seasons and also became one of just six NCAA players to collect 2,000 points, 600 rebounds and 600 assists in a career. His 2,363 points represent the highest scoring total of that elite group.
Wolters left SDSU as the Jackrabbits’ all-time leader in points (2,353), assists (663) and free throws made (644). He and teammate Tony Fiegen both played an SDSU record 128 games in their careers, helping their team amass an 85-46 record in their four years at the school.
He enjoyed being part of a group that took the SDSU program to new heights.
“We were kind of the talk of the town,” Wolters said. “It’s a small college town. South Dakota doesn’t have pro sports teams or high major teams. That made us different from a lot of other mid-majors. They don’t get the fan support we do. It was cool.
“We were from a small college town of about 20,000 people, so people were always recognizing us there. We were pretty noticeable everywhere we went. In South Dakota, I’m a lot more popular than I am when I come out here, or even back home in St. Cloud. Nobody notices me there.”