The Other 26: It’s Nate Wolters’ World, and We’re Just Living In ItPosted by IRenko on February 9th, 2013
I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
It wasn’t that long ago when we were musing in this space about whether an early December ankle injury was hindering Nate Wolters’ performance. After missing two games, Wolters registered three straight games with a sub-100 offensive rating (per Ken Pomeroy), decidedly mediocre performances by Wolters’ high standards. But those would be the only three games this year where Wolters fell below that mark, as he emerged from his funk with a 28-point performance in a big win over New Mexico. Since then, Wolters has been as productive as ever. But none of us could have expected what happened on Thursday night. Wolters exploded for an incredible 53-point performance.
Wolters shot 17-of-28 from the floor, including 9-of-14 from three-point range. He added 10 points from the free throw line. He outscored the entire opposing team, IPFW, in the second half, 38-37. He scored in every which way — step back threes, drives through the lane, catch-and-shoot threes, drives along the baseline, threes off ball screens, pull-up jumpers … you name it, he did it.
Wolters is now averaging 22.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game. He commits just 2.3 turnovers a game despite using more than 30 percent of the Jackrabbits’ possessions. He shoots over 80 percent from the free throw line and over 40 percent from the three-point line. And perhaps most important of all, he has led his team on an eight-game winning streak that has buried an uneven start to the conference season and put the Jackrabbits in a first-place tie with Western Illinois. If you’ve yet to catch the Wolters show, fret not as there are some high-profile opportunities in the coming weeks. Next Saturday, the Jackrabbits welcome Western Illinois to Brookings, and you can bet that the joint will be jumping. And a week later, Wolters will take his talents to Murray, Kentucky to square off against Isaiah Canaan and the Racers in a premier Bracketbuster matchup.
On to this week’s Top 10, our Honor Roll, and the games to watch this week …
- New Mexico State’s 10-Game Winning Streak – The Aggies finished second in the WAC last year en route to winning the league’s NCAA Tournament bid, but during the offseason, they lost their three most productive players, including four-year standout Wendell McKines, to graduation. So their 6-8 start to the season, including an 0-2 start in conference play, was hardly unexpected. But the Aggies have since upended expectations by winning 10 straight, putting them in a second place tie with Denver and right on the heels of Louisiana Tech.
- Christopher Anderson’s Goes the Distance at the Buzzer – On Monday night, San Diego trailed Loyola Marymount by a point with five seconds left in overtime and LMU’s Anthony Ireland, an 80 percent free throw shooter, headed to the line. But when Ireland missed the front end of a 1-and-1, it gave San Diego guard Christopher Anderson a chance to race the length of the court and finish with a wild, acrobatic shot for the win.
- R.J. Hunter — Before Mr. Wolters’ amazing 53-point trick on Thursday night, it was R.J. Hunter who was having the best individual week of any mid-major player. The Georgia State freshman, who plays for his colorful dad Ron Hunter, followed up a 27-point performance at Northeastern last week, with 38 points against Old Dominion on Saturday and a 26 against UNC-Wilmington on Wednesday. He is now averaging 17.7 points on the season, to go with 5.4 rebounds, and is undoubtedly one of the most productive and valuable-to-his-team freshmen in the country. Indeed, he is the primary reason that Georgia State, despite losing four senior starters from a team that went 11-7 in the CAA last year, is sitting on another unexpectedly impressive conference record at 7-5.
- Bobby Capobianco Dishes Nine Assists — If you don’t know who Capobianco is, you’re not alone. The backup center at Valparaiso once plied his trade at Indiana, but with minutes hard to come by on a squad that was rapidly improving, transferred to Valpo last year. The burly big man is the kind of lunchbucket player who is more a dime-a-dozen type player than a player who might drop nearly a dozen dimes. Heading into Tuesday night’s game against Illinois-Chicago, Capobianco had a total of eight assists on the season. He more than doubled his total that night, recording a remarkable nine assists. Indeed he almost had a triple double, as he added 10 points and nine rebounds. With starting center Kevin Van Wijk in foul trouble all night, Capobianco played a season-high 28 minutes and made the most of it. If he can continue to provide productive minutes off the bench, the Crusaders will be that much more likely to bring home a conference crown and NCAA Tournament bid.
Looking Forward: What We’re Watching
Here are the games to keep an eye on over the next week.
- New Mexico at UNLV (2/9) / San Diego State at Colorado State (2/13) — This week, the Mountain West’s emerging powers, now sitting atop the conference standings, will have a chance to put some separation between themselves the conference’s old standard-bearers. A Lobos win would put them in very good position to win the regular season title. For UNLV, it is imperative that they hold home court against the MWC’s best after going 1-4 on the road. Meanwhile, in Fort Collins, Colorado State will try to avenge their overtime loss at San Diego State and extend their 26-game home winning streak. This is the first of several tough road games for the Aztecs, as they will always travel to UNLV and New Mexico in the coming weeks.
- Memphis at Southern Mississippi (2/9) / Central Florida at Memphis (2/13) – Memphis is undefeated in C-USA play, but they’ve had a soft schedule to date in what is a down year for the conference to begin with. This week, they begin an 8-game stretch in which they play five games against the next three teams in the conference standings. The Tigers have a lot to prove, including their worthiness for a Tournament at-large bid, should they need it.
- Oral Roberts at Stephen F. Austin (2/9) — Stephen F. Austin has the best defense in the country that you haven’t heard about, ranked third in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency ratings, just behind Florida and Louisville. (And yes, that’s adjusted for strength of schedule.) Grinding teams out with a low-tempo game that takes away the three-point shot and makes things nearly as difficult inside the arc, the Lumberjacks have compiled a 19-2 record, including a 10-1 conference mark. But a loss to Oral Roberts today would put them into a three-way conference tie with Northwestern State and Oral Roberts. To win, the Lumberjacks will need to contain the strong inside combo of Shawn Glover and Damen Bell-Holter, plus wing Warren Niles.
- Southern at Arkansas Pine Bluff (2/9) – Southern has taken a seat at the head of the SWAC table with a 10-1 record, largely on the strength of its defense, which has held opponents to less than a point per possession in all games but one this year. But they will put sole possession of first place on the line when they travel to second-place Arkansas Pine Bluff, which sits at 9-2.
- Gonzaga at St. Mary’s (2/14) — It’s time for Round 2. Both teams will be looking to prove something on Thursday night. Gonzaga will hope to show that it remains capable of beating a strong team on the road in the midst of feasting on the WCC’s lesser squads. A Tournament 2 seed could be at stake. St. Mary’s, meanwhile, is in desperate need of a signature win to burnish their NCAA Tournament credentials.
- Vermont at Stony Brook (2/15) – It’s a big week for premier matchups in some of the nation’s weaker conferences, and like the Southland and SWAC, America East is getting in on the action. Stony Brook has been the strongest team in the league, but their one blemish is an 8-point loss at Vermont in January. If the Catamounts can duplicate the feat on the road, they’ll move into a share for the top spot in the standings. In their last meeting, Stony Brook was without starting point guard Anthony Jackson, which may have contributed to a high-turnover night. Jackson’s presence plus the home-court advantage make the Seawolves the favorite here.