NBA prospect Wolters returns to face improved Gophers

Minnesota native Nate Wolters was not recruited by the Gophers.

Minnesota forward Rodney Williams dunks against Minnesota State-Mankato on Nov. 1 at Williams Arena.

Mark Vancleave, Daily File Photo

Minnesota forward Rodney Williams dunks against Minnesota State-Mankato on Nov. 1 at Williams Arena.

Andrew Krammer

The Gophers never recruited Nate Wolters.

But the St. Cloud, Minn., native said he didn’t care. He didn’t think he could play in the Big Ten, anyway.

“I was never really recruited by any high majors, so I never thought about Minnesota,” Wolters said. “I wasn’t upset about it.”

Wolters, a senior guard and All-American honorable mention last year for South Dakota State (6-2), returns to Williams Arena for the fourth time in his career Tuesday to face the Gophers (8-1).

Wolters is 0-3 against Minnesota, but this season, he’s averaging 20 points on a career-high 49 percent shooting. Some NBA mock drafts have him slotted as a late-second round pick.

SDSU made it to its first NCAA tournament in program history last season behind Wolters’ team-high 21 points and six assists per game.

The 6-foot-4-inch, 193-pound guard also set an SDSU record for field goals made in a season last year with 250. 

Minnesota’s head coach Tubby Smith said his squad was loaded with guard talent at the peak of Wolters’ recruitment.

“We didn’t get a chance to see [Wolters],” Smith said. “We had Al Nolen, Blake Hoffarber those years as freshmen.”

Smith will deploy a combination of Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins to defend him because “one guy doesn’t stop [Wolters].”

“It’s going to take a team effort,” Smith said.

Minnesota plays SDSU a day after jumping seven spots in the Associated Press poll to No. 14.

The Gophers have never ranked higher than 14th under Smith. Smith said he hopes the ranking won’t be a distraction.

“Hopefully it serves to motivate and inspire our team to play harder,” he said.

Smith has made coaching against the Jackrabbits an annual event and is 5-0 against SDSU since coming to Minnesota in 2007.

Led by Wolters, SDSU returns four starters from last year’s tournament team and averages a Summit League-high 76 points.

“We know we can play with [Minnesota],” Wolters said.

Andre Hollins likened Wolters to former Wisconsin point guard Jordan Taylor. Rodney Williams called Wolters a gifted player.

The Gophers score at the same clip as SDSU, but they’re holding teams to 60 points per contest on average behind the defensive prowess of Rodney Williams and Austin Hollins.

Williams is averaging career highs in blocks (1.7), rebounds (6.2) and field-goal percentage (.593) this season, while Hollins leads the team in steals (2.2).

The Jackrabbits are far from defensive and average four blocks and six steals per game, about half as many as Minnesota.

The Gophers’ biggest advantage is on the glass, where they average 40 rebounds per game — the highest in Smith’s tenure.

SDSU nabs 35 boards per contest and struggles on the offensive glass.

Led by Williams, Minnesota averages 16 offensive rebounds, five more than SDSU.

Still, Williams said he knows the Jackrabbits will pose a threat if the Gophers don’t enter the matchup with a purpose.

“We need to respect our opponents,” he said, “because everybody is going to be gunning for us now with our ranking.”