MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The real “March Madness” tips off Thursday morning here on WCCO-TV Channel 4.
The University of Minnesota Gophers team isn’t in, but there is a team to watch from nearby: South Dakota State University. The Jackrabbits will meet Baylor tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. in New Mexico.
It’s been quite a journey in Brookings to get to this point, and the team has a local flavor. WCCO-TV went to South Dakota after they celebrated their conference tournament championship.
It was a quiet day on campus in Brookings as spring break claimed a majority of the students. They returned to campus this week to hear a historical announcement.
Their Summit League Tournament championship meant the Jackrabbits were heading to play in the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. It’s the first berth in the tournament for the program.
Regardless of how their match-up with Baylor finishes, they’ve already won in some respects.
“It puts you in a completely different place. You couldn’t possibly pay for all this exposure and we’re really proud of the things we’re doing here,” said Justin Sell, the athletic director at South Dakota State, about being in the tournament. “A chance to showcase that is a pretty special thing.”
With the excitement of the tournament looming, there’s a different feel and a burst of energy on campus.
“It’s amazing. You walk around campus going from the unions to classes and everyone is just hyped up about the game,” said SDSU student Jaci Clauson. “It’s unbelievable; with the student section and the fans it’s amazing.”
The team hosted a gathering on campus to watch the NCAA Selection Show and see what seed they would get and where they were headed.
It was revealed last Sunday that South Dakota State would head to New Mexico as the No. 14 seed to take on No. 3-seeded Baylor.
The program even got some national respect from analysts who began picking winners once the brackets were released.
“I think that obviously this proves that we can play at this level,” said SDSU head coach Scott Nagy. “We’ve done very well with 27 wins this year and I’m very proud of our kids. We’ve taken some steps this year and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Not bad for a team that went Division I less than a decade ago, and at the time it was a high-risk decision.
“I think that the people that made the decision — our administrators, you know a while back 8 or 9 years ago – this is a big day for them. To see this is paying off,” said Sell. “People were taking a lot of heat for it.”
The Jackrabbits also have one of the top scorers in the country, and he hails from St. Cloud. Nate Wolters’ reputation as a gym rat is reaching legendary status in these parts. He is what makes this team go.
He just doesn’t like to talk about it, coming from St. Cloud Tech, and claiming he’s been surprised by how his game has blossomed in Brookings.
“I didn’t really know quite what to expect when I came here. I didn’t really know anyone and didn’t know if I could compete at this level,” Wolters said. “I just try to work hard every day and it’s paid off. It’s been a lot of fun.”
South Dakota State took a chance by going Division I, and now at least for a week, they are exactly where they want to be and exactly who they want to be.
“It’s pretty cool. You always dream about being selected and that’s been our goal all year. It’s a really cool experience and it should be a lot of fun next week,” Wolters said. “It’s been an unbelievable journey, but you obviously want to win. It would be really cool to come through and win a couple games.”
While this is the first appearance for the men’s team in the Division I tournament, the women’s team qualified for its fourth straight appearance and will play Purdue on Saturday in the first round.