On paper, there are similarities between this year's South Dakota St. team Michigan will face in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and the Ohio U. team that knocked the Wolverines out in the first game last season. Outstanding point guards led both, and both teams had other scorers, as well.
The Jackrabbits, though, are different in one big way, U-M head coach John Beilein said Tuesday. Specifically, they resemble some of the teams that followed his blueprint in the past - shooters at every position, and great spacing.
"It's similar with a commanding point guard like [Ohio's] D.J. Cooper. Nate Wolters is like that," Beilein said of the 22.7-point per game scorer. "Ohio U's four and five men weren't shooters. Theirs are shooters. That's a different challenge when they can spread you out. There are many times there is nobody under the basket and five guys we have to guard.
"That's going to be a huge challenge when everybody can shoot in the lineup. [Forward] Jordan Dykstra [12.5 ppg] and their center [Tony Fiegen 10.1 are shooters. Fiegen on film made 17-footer after 17-footer. He's not a three-point shooter, but he can really shoot the ball. There are challenges when a team knows how to play together and they have five perimeter guys. They are going to get open shots sometimes. It's going to be hard to stop that."
Wolters, though, is the catalyst. The Summit League Player of the Year averaged 5.8 assists and 5.6 rebounds in addition to his gaudy scoring numbers. He shoots 39 percent from long range, 49.3 percent overall and 81 percent from the floor.
Wolters even scored over 50 points in one game this year and hit nine triples in another.
"Bacari [Alexander] mentioned he's a [former NBA player] Mark Price type of player. I do see some similarities," Beilein said. "He has the great ability to make the right pass at right time instantaneously. He just is there. There's not a thought. He gets many more assists by not taking the extra dribble, thinking too much, just hitting the extra man.
"What's unusual for a player his size is the runners. He goes into the lane, doesn't charge, lets up little floaters that seem to go in like crazy. Whenever he sees that bubble, the open court, he is attacking. That's why he went to the foul line 200 times."
Michigan, though, is battle tested, having just missed a title in the nation's toughest conference. How the Wolverines defend will likely determine how far they go, and could even be the difference in escaping the first two games.
The round of 64 isn't what it used to be, Beilein noted - the gap between mid-majors with juniors and seniors and high majors with freshmen and sophomores is dwindling. His insists his young team knows the relevance and how important the little things are.
"They've played well to have gotten to this point, now let's seize the day, go after it," he said. "We spent the whole season working hard, but 31 games over four months, that can get monotonous. Now it's a new season."
Beilein said he's given his team more rest than he's ever given any of his squads before tournament play.
"There are extra motivational things we'll do, positive tapes or a short video today on giving a little bit extra," he said. "But what I've learned in time is to try to keep them as fresh as we can. I've given them more time off last week than I've ever given team off. The end of the season with game, game, game, tournament - going into this we want to be very fresh. If we had a veteran team, we may have treated it differently."
No matter how well they play, there is always some luck involved in the NCAA Tournament, he added.
"We are always reexamining what we do," he said. "The times we made significant runs, sometimes it was a good matchup in the first round. One year we went to the elite eight [at West Virginia], won at the buzzer, double overtime and at the buzzer. It could have been loss, loss, loss - we messed up. The NCAA Tournament if you watch, it's evolved over time. Every team needs a break or two in those first two rounds to advance, and then they might get going."