We knew how this story would end.
It wouldn't be like last year, when I followed South Dakota State during the run through its conference tournament. That ended with net-cutting and bro-hugging and an emotional coach choking back tears of joy. "It was," SDSU guard Brayden Carlson said, "like a fairy tale."
This year, the plan was to pick up where I left off in 2012. I would embed with the Jackrabbits for the NCAA tournament. And for 67 of the 68 teams that participate, the big dance ends the same way. It doesn't matter if it's a mid-March Tuesday in Dayton or an early-April Monday in Atlanta. Eventually, they all lose.
Sunday, March 17
Selection show party — 4:28 p.m.
Cubby's Sports Bar; Brookings, South Dakota
"I'm calling it. A 14-seed."
That's Marcus Heemstra, the Jacks' backup center, sitting at a high-top table as he waits for Greg Gumbel to announce his team's draw. Around him fans mill about, breaking into sporadic chants of "Go Big! Go Blue! Go Jacks!" In the bar's back room, TV crews have set up a makeshift studio. Last year, Heemstra thought SDSU would get a 13-seed. Instead, they were a 14 — eventual 68-60 losers to Baylor. Now, he says, "I'm trying to keep expectations low."
The players have studied the various bracket projections. Most have them earning a 13 and heading to a first-round site out west — perhaps Salt Lake City or Austin. There's also the matter of whom they might play. Florida's loss in the SEC championship game has assistant Rob Klinkefus feeling nervous that the Gators might slip from a 2-seed to a 3 or 4, giving them a first-round game against the Jacks. "Teams like that who play high-pressure defense — we struggle against them," he says. "Except for Nate." Nate is Nate Wolters, SDSU point guard and college basketball cult hero — the nation's fourth-leading scorer and a likely NBA draft pick. Wolters is the catalyst of a Jackrabbits team that is at its best when pushing the tempo and hitting 3s, a team that mirrors past NCAA cinderellas like Ohio (2010) and Lehigh (2012).
Soon the room goes silent except for the sound of Gumbel's voice. He starts in the Midwest, announcing Louisville as the top overall seed. He continues and soon reaches the fourth seed. It's Saint Louis. Assistant coach Austin Hansen drops his head to his hands. (A few minutes later he'll say, "Physically, Saint Louis would beat the shit out of us.") Gumbel resumes — instead, the Billikens will beat the shit out of New Mexico State.
Moments later, Michigan State is announced as the third seed, and a chorus of gasps echoes through the room. "Oh no," I hear a player say. "Oh no oh no oh no." Like the Baylor team that eliminated SDSU last year, the Spartans' strength is their frontcourt, and the Jackrabbits don't match up well against big, athletic front lines. Yet they are spared from the bruising that MSU's Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix would lay on them, and instead Valparaiso will face the Spartans.
When Gumbel reaches the South bracket, he announces that the 4-seed is Michigan. "I'll play Michigan," says Jordan Dykstra, a sweet-shooting big man and the Jacks' second-leading scorer. "Let's play Michigan." Gumbel announces the 13-seed. It's South Dakota State.
They'll play Michigan.
And now the crowd is cheering and the fight song is playing and the players are clapping and nodding their heads. Hansen, the assistant, looks up: "That means Nate against Trey Burke." He smiles. Behind him Dykstra says what everyone around him believes, what they'll be saying for the rest of the week.
"We can beat Michigan."
Monday, March 18
Scout team practice — 1:04 p.m.
"There he is!" says Brian Cooley, an assistant coach. "Trey Burke, everyone!"
A 6-foot-2 guard walks into the gym. He is not Trey Burke, Michigan point guard and Naismith Award finalist. He is Josh White — SDSU architecture major, walk-on redshirt freshman, and the point guard for the Jackrabbits' scout team. Cooley has brought together White and the rest of the scout team for a quick course on the Wolverines' "two guard" offense. It's a system they know well. League opponent University of Missouri–Kansas City runs the same offense, and their coach this season was Matt Brown, a former assistant under Michigan's John Beilein. Throughout the week SDSU head coach Scott Nagy will say that Michigan is "like UMKC on steroids."
Cooley assigns each member of the scout team a doppelgänger. White is ordered to penetrate at every opportunity, just like Burke, while Cory Jacobsen, who plays Nik Stauskas, is told to shoot from 3 before putting the ball on the floor. Matt Donlan, a 6-6 Aussie freshman who's been assigned the role of Tim Hardaway Jr., takes quickly to his role. "Hardaway with the crossover!" he says, in a broadcaster's voice while dribbling on his own. "Hardaway for 3!"
Hardaway misses. The team, however, picks up the offense with ease. They spread the floor with two players just beyond half court, two on the wings, and the center at the free throw line. The offense features continuous high-screen action, with quick passes around the perimeter and frequent handoffs near the top of the key. It's run best by a team with a tough, penetrating point guard and plenty of shooters who can stretch the court and punish help defenders. In other words, it's run best by the 2012-13 Michigan Wolverines.
Film study — 1:32 p.m.
"They attack, attack, attack," Nagy tells the Jackrabbits, who are scattered around the film room, watching Synergy Sports' assemblage of Michigan plays. "Defensively, you have to be great. They're tremendous offensively."
Perhaps, but Nagy also reveals what many on the team have been thinking since the bracket was announced: "They're a good matchup for us. They're not going to pound it in the post. And offensively, you're going to get whatever you want. You just have to make shots."
It all feels rote and routine, proof that when coaches say, "We're treating this like any other game," they actually mean it. There is no mention of a talent gap between the two teams, no talk of the "opportunity at hand" or of the "chance to do something special." The coaches keep it simple. SDSU has a game in three days. That game is against Michigan. No other factors need be discussed.
Their focus shifts to defense. Nagy has built his program by recruiting talented offensive players and then spending most of his practice time coaching the other side of the game. "You can teach someone to be a good defender," he says. "A lot of guys, if they don't have a feel for it, they just can't learn to be a good offensive player."
So for now, the emphasis is on containing Burke. Handoffs to him should always be blown up — meaning his defender should force himself between Burke and the ball to prevent him from receiving it. On screens between Burke and Hardaway, the two guards, Wolters and Carlson should immediately switch. Nagy addresses senior center Tony Fiegen: "We don't want you deep in the post. If you're deep in the post, Trey Burke will go nuts on you." The plan is for Fiegen to "pro" when his man screens. This is a containment strategy, less aggressive than a hard show but designed to give Wolters a moment to recover before Burke can penetrate.
Cooley says to Fiegen, "If you're up there in your stance, and you've got a mean look on your face, he's not going to want to challenge you." Nagy jumps in, laughing. "The most important thing about all of this is the mean look."
Nate Wolters shooting session — 7:20 p.m.
This was supposed to be sacred. In most everything I read and watched regarding Wolters's nighttime shootarounds, that was the impression I got. Announcers reference the sessions during almost every SDSU game. Newspaper writers lead with descriptions of nights like this. A poem — an actual poem — has been written in homage. This is the stuff of South Dakota lore: the best college player in the state's history, alone in the gym, stutter-stepping and hesitation-dribbling his way to hoops nirvana.
But on this night, it's not quite as romantic as I imagined. Instead of midnight, it's dinnertime. Instead of the main court, Wolters shoots on a side basket. And instead of demanding solitude, Wolters agreeably stays out of the way of dance team practice, which occupies much of the gym. Hair must be tossed. Hips must be shaken. If Wolters wants to shoot, he can do it in the corner.
So he sets up a trash can and goes to work. Crossovers lead to pull-up jumpers. Stutter steps to floaters. A few moves to the right, then a few to the left. Always with several free throws in between. The session is neither solemn nor sacred. Wolters is a senior, and this is the last night before he leaves for the NCAA tournament. Yet there is no feeling that this might be his last solo workout as a Jackrabbit. There's just shot after shot, move after move, all performed, it seems, because why would he want to do anything else with his Monday night?
"People talk about Nate having a great work ethic," says Nagy, "and, yeah, maybe. But really, for him, basketball isn't work. It's just what he has to be doing. Otherwise, he doesn't really know what to do with himself." These sessions began Wolters's sophomore year. He would text Austin Miller, a student manager, and ask if he wanted to go to the gym. There, they'd watch basketball on the team room television until about 10:30, and then Wolters would shoot, with Miller rebounding, until one in the morning. "Every night, it was the same text," says Miller. "And every night, he acted as if he had just thought of the idea. Eventually, I had to say, 'OK, this is our routine now. I need to plan my nights around this.'"
When Wolters is sitting in the locker room or on the bus, he looks nothing like what we've come to expect basketball players to look like. Instead, he looks like the clerk at your local video game store, if that clerk were about a third of the way through P90X. He is lightly muscled, with the posture of a half-dead willow tree, but as soon as he steps on the court, his anatomy gets rearranged. Some players make it look like the ball is an extension of their bodies. Wolters looks like his body is an extension of the ball, contorting himself with each dribble to follow the ball to a spot that appears preordained. He plays with a deadness in his eyes, with an unfeeling cocksureness that seems born of the complete knowledge of what he can do on a basketball court.
In interviews, Wolters projects calm humility. It seems genuine but measured, and it's completely at odds with the way he plays. Says Klinkefus: "He'll never say it, not even to us, but I promise you he wants to absolutely crush Trey Burke. I don't even know about how this applies to other aspects of his life, but when it comes to basketball, he's just got that fucking fire in him."
Wolters is far more comfortable discussing the game as a fan than as a player. Talking as he shoots, he says little about his NBA future but looks for any opportunity to ask how I feel about the Hawks (he remembers from last year that I'm an Atlanta fan) or share his own lamentations about the Timberwolves. "Occasionally," says Heemstra, Wolters's roommate, "we'll be watching an NBA game and he'll start wondering out loud about how he would match up with another point guard. But if you ask anyone else on the team whether he talks about the NBA, they'll say no. I'm his roommate, and 90 percent of the time I hear him talk about it, it's only because I'm the one bringing it up."
A few days later, when I ask an NBA executive about Wolters, he says, "He's one of those that will go in the second round, and a coach will love his work ethic and skill set. If he was quicker and could guard better, he would be a first-rounder, but he struggles with athleticism and length. That concerns me — it's the same problem Jimmer has."1
Wolters does say that whenever the tournament ends, he'll probably move quickly toward signing with an agent and beginning pre-draft preparation. A history major, he's taking only online classes this semester, so he'll be able to spend much of the spring working out with other prospects, perhaps in Florida. "It'll be interesting," he says, and with Wolters, that passes for a moment of candor.
For now, however, he keeps shooting, expecting that tonight will not be the last time, that he'll be back here next week for another round of shots, preparing for the Sweet 16. Eventually, after he makes several consecutive corner 3s, he shrugs. "That's basically it," he says. "I'm done."
Tuesday, March 19
Send-off — 11:26 a.m.
East campus parking lot
I'd say something about the buzz around campus, but on this day, campus is a barely habitable tundra, populated by swaddled and hooded students who waddle between buildings in search of central heating. So, no, the Jackrabbits' send-off is not much of a to-do. Compared to most teams from low-major conferences, South Dakota State has a large and dedicated fan base, the result of being the flagship school for this sparsely populated state. South Dakotans are excited, yes, but right now they're just cold. As the team loads onto the bus, most fans stay inside.
It's an hour-long ride south to the airport in Sioux Falls. There, the Jackrabbits will board a charter plane bound for Detroit.
Wednesday, March 20
Practice — 12:20 p.m.
Palace of Auburn Hills; Auburn Hills, Michigan
The Jackrabbits have played in large arenas before, but never anywhere like this. Compared to their home in Brookings, the lighting is starker and the court more polished. The camera crews are larger and the TV reporters wear more expensive perfume. They have become cast members in March Madness, a show put on by the NCAA, CBS/Turner, and a few hundred players just like them. Here, they'll be pampered and cheered and treated like unpaid pros. At least, that is, until they lose.
Last year, when SDSU arrived at the Pit in New Mexico to practice for its game against Baylor, the players spent the session staring at the lights, barely saying a word, and firing airballs as they gawked at the media horde. "We had," says Heemstra, "the worst pre-tournament practice in the history of pre-tournament practices."
Now, no one seems awed by the setting. They run through their routine, looking crisp and polished. On the sideline, Nagy chats up Bill Raftery and Verne Lundquist. Later, the players will say that they've been here before, that they feel comfortable and they're approaching this game just as they would approach a Thursday-night game in the Summit League.
As he walks off the court, Wolters gets stopped by autograph seekers. They hand him pens and programs, basketballs and blank sheets of paper. One asks him to write "53 points" and the date of his explosion against IPFW. Another asks, "Are you a starter?"
Thursday, March 21
Pregame meal — 3:15 p.m.
They spend Thursday afternoon the same way as everyone else: watching truTV. They're gathered in the team room, picking at platters of pasta, meatballs, and broccoli, flipping between Marquette-Davidson and Memphis–St. Mary's. Assuming that everyone, even the players, picks a bracket, I start asking around to see how far they've picked themselves to go. Yet each player insists he didn't fill one out. "Not after that video we watched," says sophomore forward Zach Horstman. (The NCAA bans players and staff from entering pools that award money.)
Conversation shifts, like it does in so many places around the country, to Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson. Like Wolters, Henderson is a white volume shooter who's become a college basketball cult hero (or, perhaps in Henderson's case, a mass-market villain). "Did you see," Wolters asks, "that he was out partying after they won the SEC championship? He posted something on Twitter about winning 10 games of beer pong." Wolters, about whom a Brookings bartender told me, "You will never see him out at night," shakes his head and continues. "That can't even be possible." I mention Henderson's pre-tournament quote about making a deep run so he could "get this money." Wolters's eyes go wide. "He said that?"
The Henderson quote is shocking, in part, because Wolters is a master of deflecting questions, taking the most pointed inquiries and pivoting into teamspeak and cliché. Just the day before, a reporter asked about his matchup with Burke. "He's a great player," Wolters said. "Probably the national player of the year. They're a really talented team. They were ranked no. 1 earlier in the season. So, I mean, it will be a good challenge for us and we're looking forward to it."
Early in the meal, Hansen calls over Nick Goff, the graduate assistant who handles much of the team's logistics. "If we lose," Hansen says in a low voice, out of earshot from the players, "are we going to fly back tonight? Or tomorrow?" It's four hours before tipoff, and this is the first time all week I've heard anyone even acknowledge the possibility that they might not win.
Goff looks back at Hansen. "Tonight," he says. "1 a.m."
Pregame — 5:41 p.m.
"There's not going to be any David-and-Goliath speech tonight," Nagy says. He's standing in front of a too-small whiteboard in a too-small room, his players cramped together in metal folding chairs with thin red padding. Perhaps somewhere, in another corner of the arena, a team like Michigan has room to stretch. But with eight teams playing in the same gym on the same day, space is limited. So they huddle around a fruit platter and some watered-down Powerade and listen to Nagy: "I don't think that kind of speech applies. Maybe it applied last year, but not now."
Nagy has never been one for oratory. He trusts his players and his preparation. He believes effort in games comes from effort in practice — not from pregame speeches. "We want toughness without tightness," he says. "We want intensity without being tense. Are there any questions about what we're doing? OK. That's it. That's your pregame speech. Now let's go get 'em."
Nagy leaves the room with silence. His one criticism of this team is that they don't communicate enough, that there's a lack of vocal leadership both on the court and in the locker room. Now, for no apparent reason, the players whisper. How many grapes do you want? Can you grab me a water?
Fiegen, the senior big man who long dreamed of playing for SDSU, stares into nothing. Wolters looks straight ahead, chewing the cap of a water bottle. The team's trainer circles the room, taping ankles and wrists. Finally they get word: It's time for warm-ups.
Tipoff — 7:17 p.m.
The Jackrabbits spent all week saying they were happy to match up with a team that wouldn't pound the ball inside. Yet Michigan has altered its starting lineup, inserting the 6-foot-10, 250-pound Mitch McGary and revealing its plan to exploit the Jackrabbits' lack of size. On the first play of the game, McGary catches a pass off a pick-and-roll and draws a foul. Moments later, he grabs an offensive rebound and dunks. Then he scores on a running left-handed hook. The surprise starter has Michigan's first five points.
The Jackrabbits settle in. Carlson, the shooting guard, darts into the lane once to score on a putback and again for a drive to the rack. Wolters hits a long 2 over Burke to put the Jacks up 8-7.
Then around the 15-minute mark, this happens: Burke dribbles upcourt for Michigan, and he passes to Stauskas on the wing. The Wolverines set up McGary at the top of the key and Glenn Robinson III in the far corner. When Stauskas looks for a driving lane, junior guard Chad White cuts him off. Stauskas hands to Robinson. The Jacks defenders give him no place to go. He tries to hand off to Hardaway, but Carlson is there to blow it up, exactly as the team had prepared. Finally, Robinson kicks out to Burke.
"He's a lot like Chris Paul," Nagy said of Burke earlier in the week. "He'll use his body to get around screens, and he loves the floater." Yet as McGary comes up to set a pick, Burke finds nowhere to go. Wolters pushes his way past McGary and Fiegen drops into the perfect spot to contain, giving Wolters plenty of time to recover. McGary tries to reset the screen. "He's a football player," the coaches said of the Michigan center. "He's not skilled, but he plays hard." Now Wolters dances around him, and Fiegen plays the screen perfectly once again, and the best player in the country still can't find any cracks in the defense. With the shot clock winding down, Burke tries to go one-on-one but Wolters beats him to every spot. Pro scouts had said before the game that they were curious to see how Wolters would defend Burke, and now, for at least one possession, he looks spectacular. Burke kicks the ball to Stauskas, and as Stauskas hands off back to Burke, Wolters and White switch. Burke is forced to fire a fadeaway from the corner before the shot clock expires. The ball bounces off the rim, and down in the paint Fiegen wrestles McGary, not going for the rebound but making sure his opponent gets nowhere near the ball. It bounces to the ground, and Wolters swoops in to grab it. With that, the Jacks are off and running.
It's a perfect defensive possession, 35 seconds of a smart game plan flawlessly executed. If SDSU can repeat that performance, and if they can get their shots to fall, then they can win.
One problem: They can't get their shots to fall. White airballs from 3. Wolters gets stuffed in the lane. Dykstra comes up short on a fadeaway. Fiegen connects when he gets the opportunity, but for him, the opportunities are scarce. Only Carlson, the team's fifth-leading scorer, can find an offensive rhythm. He drills 3s and darts into the lane, and as the first half closes, SDSU is down 30-26 and Carlson has 16 points.
Halftime — 8:01 p.m.
"That's not a good half of basketball we just played, and everyone in here knows it," says Nagy. With that, he walks into another room to meet with the coaches. They're down only four points to one of the most talented teams in the country, but in the locker room, there is only frustration. Carlson sits sprawled in his chair, staring at his shoes and spitting into a cup. Wolters stares ahead, blank-faced. White claps lightly, twice. The only words come from Dykstra. "We can beat these dudes," he says. "We're better than this."
Nagy returns: "We all know our struggles are offensive rather than defensive. On offense we're playing soft. We're not attacking. Nate drives, and everyone else is just standing around. Anyone who cuts is going to get the ball. They're staring straight ahead, but no one's moving behind the defense."
He looks at Fiegen. "On the boards, I'm sure Tony can tell you, McGary is pretty strong. Am I right, Tony?" Fiegen will finish the night with just two rebounds, but because of his efforts to box out McGary, the Jacks will end up tied with Michigan on the boards. But for now, he nods as everyone laughs. Nagy resumes. "I mean, that dude's a load. So the guards have got to get in there and rebound." He looks over his notes. "Whoever Stauskas is guarding, let's screen. Make him play defense. Burke is struggling, and they need him. They're going to do whatever they can to get him going."
They all start clapping. Nagy urges them on: "All right, let's go. This is your game to go get!" As the players run onto the court, Klinkefus looks at me and says, "We just need to make a fucking shot."
Second half — 8:22 p.m.
They make some shots, but not many. Wolters remains cold. So does White. Michigan switches on nearly every screen, confident that any player on their team has the length and quickness to guard any player for SDSU. On one of Michigan's early possessions, Wolters can't get around a double screen and Fiegen is caught out of position and unable to help. Burke gets into the lane and draws Carlson in from the corner and away from Robinson. It's a domino rally of small mistakes that leads to an opportunity for the Wolverines. Burke kicks to Robinson, who hits a 3. Moments later, he does it again.
Two imperfect defensive possessions. Two Burke drives and kicks. Two Robinson 3s. The Wolverines are rolling. There will be no comeback, no upset, no deep tournament run. Final score: 71-56.
For SDSU, this is the end.
Postgame — 9:06 p.m.
The silence is broken only by sniffles. Heads are in hands, faces buried in shirts. If there are tears, they are all hidden. When Nagy walks in, he immediately hugs Fiegen. Soon, he'll hug Wolters. "I'm sorry," he says, and then he pauses. "I don't mean I'm sorry for something I've done; I just mean I'm sorry for you guys, that it ended like this." He takes a few breaths and glances at each of the seniors. "We're losing two great guys. Two good men. I love you guys. Tony and Nate, thank you.
"There will be more to discuss later, but now is not the time. Now come on in."
There is a thin wall between here and the adjacent locker room. Next door, you can hear the Akron Zips gather together before taking the court against VCU. They are whooping and cheering, shouting at each other: "Let's go!" It is the sound of motivation and possibility, of believing in themselves and trusting their teammates. They sound like a team that is ready to play. They sound like a team that will win.
They won't. The Zips will lose, 88-42. Another set of careers will end. Another room full of tournament fantasies will go unfulfilled. After the game, perhaps that locker room will look a little bit like this one. Here, the Jackrabbits circle together, hands on each other's shoulders, heads bowed. On the count of three, they say, "Together," and then they disperse.
They pack up and head to the bus. The plane to South Dakota leaves at 1 a.m.