ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The good news for Michigan is that they only have to go to the Palace of Auburn Hills to start the NCAA Tournament.
The bad news is that Nate Wolters and a whole lot of Michigan State fans will be waiting for them.
The 4th-seeded Wolverines (26-7) will face 13th-seeded South Dakota State (25-9) Thursday (7:15 p.m. on CBS) in a South Regional game. Last season, Michigan was upset by Ohio in the first round.
“I’m not worried about last year, because we lost to what turned out to be a very good team — Ohio University should have ended up in the Elite Eight if one guy makes a free throw,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “I love this team. We had 26 wins, and that’s a great season.”
Beilein also shrugged off concerns about Michigan’s 6-6 finish.
“That finish could have been a lot worse, or it could have been much better,” he said. “You are talking about a couple of bounces that could have completely changed the outcome of games.”
The Michigan players are happy to be only facing an hour-long bus ride instead of a flight across the country, but don’t want to get too excited about “home” games this weekend.
“It’s great that we are going to staying close to home, because we’ll have our fans in the building,” Trey Burke said. “That can’t change how we approach the game, though. We learned last year from losing to Ohio that you can’t take any game for granted. Every team is in this tournament for a reason.”
On the same day, Michigan State will be playing Valparaiso, and the Spartans fans will be happy to adopt the Jackrabbits for the day.
“This is going to be great for me, because I’ve never even been to the Palace, much less played there,” said freshman Mitch McGary. “I hope they put us in a doubleheader with Michigan State, because that would be a lot of fun for our fans and their fans.”
South Dakota State, who plays in the Summit League alongside Oakland University, is led by Wolters, one of the nation’s best mid-major players.
Wolters averaged 22.7 points, 5.8 assists and 5.6 rebounds as South Dakota State went 13-3 in the Summit League and then won the conference tournament to earn an NCAA bid. Wolters made national highlights when he scored a Division I-high 53 points against IPFW in February.
“I’ve never seen him play, but I know he’s a great point guard,” Burke said. “I’ll be learning a lot about him in the next few days.”
Wolters already has one fan on the Wolverines — Tim Hardaway Jr. The pair played together in a basketball camp a few years ago.
“He’s a really humble guy, and he loves basketball,” Hardaway said. “The thing I remember the most about him is his work ethic. He works as hard as anyone I know.”
South Dakota State’s best win was an upset at New Mexico in December. The Jackrabbits won 14 of their last 15 conference games, with the only loss coming Feb. 9 at Oakland.
“I’ve only taken a quick look, but I saw a good team with a great point guard,” Beilein said. “They have a lot of seniors, they get to the line and shoot 75 percent, and I have a lot of respect for the Summit League. We’ve had a lot of close games against Oakland.”
If Michigan advances, they will play Saturday at the Palace against the winner of 5th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth against 12th-seeded Akron. If they make it to the Sweet Sixteen, they would advance to the South Regional semifinals at Cowboys Stadium on March 29.