Thursday’s Michigan vs. South Dakota State game is expected to be fairly one sided. Michigan is a No. 4 seed and widely regarded as one of the most talented teams in the country. South Dakota State has far inferior talent on their roster and hail from the unheralded Summit Conference. The one position where many people do think the Jackrabbits can compete is at point guard. That is where their best player, Nate Wolters, plays. However, Michigan has the best player in the country, Trey Burke. So, is this positional battle close at all?
A first look at the statistics shows that these players have very similar production. In per game statistics, Wolters averages 22.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.8 assists with a 3.3 assist to turnover ratio and 1.8 steals. He shoots 49.3 percent from the field and 39 percent on three-pointers. Burke averages 19.2 points, 3.1 rebounds, 6.7 assists with a 2.5 assist to turnover ratio and 1.6 steals per game. He makes 47.9 percent of his field goals and shoots 40.1 percent from three.
Those are extremely similar traditional stat-lines, with Wolters edging Burke by a little bit in scoring and rebounding, while Burke dishes out more assists. That is partially explained by Wolters’ larger role for the Jackrabbits– he doesn’t have a Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas or Glenn Robinson III to dish to. This is displayed by Wolters 29.9 percent usage rate, compared to Burke’s 28.3 percent. Michigan just has more options than South Dakota State, meaning less pressure on Burke to have to do everything.
When you look at more advanced statistics, which tell a more honest picture of how much a player contributes, the story isn’t much different. In PER, the most telling statistic to many, Wolters has the advantage with a 32.7, while Burke has 30.4. Both are incredibly impressive, with Wolters’ being the fourth best in the entire country and Burke the second best in the dominant Big Ten. Wolters also has the advantage in offensive rating and offensive win shares, according to Basketball-Reference, by a small margin. However, Burke does have better defensive numbers than Wolters by a fairly substantial margin.
The numbers all show two very similar players. Wolters has small advantages in most offensive statistical categories, while Burke takes better care of the ball and is better on defense. However, it is important to remember the level of competition each player faces. Burke plays in the Big Ten, the strongest conference in America, while Wolters tees off on defenses from the lowly Summit League. Wolters has never played against Aaron Craft or Victor Oladipo and has never gone to the basket to find Draymond Green or Trevor Mbakwe. Wolters has also never had to defend against a player like Burke.
It will be Wolters’ first real tough match-up this year when he plays Burke. It will just be another hard match-up for Burke, who has fought through a Big Ten schedule, while South Dakota State’s toughest games have been against New Mexico and Alabama. This schedule disparity is shown by Michigan’s 53rd strength of schedule, compared to South Dakota State’s 183rd SOS.
So, while Wolters has the small statistical edge, Burke has put up nearly equal numbers against much stiffer competition. If I had to pick who wins this match-up Thursday night I would pick Burke. His team is not as dependent on him and he is better defensively. This will allow him to pick his spots offensively and give a lot of effort defensively, while Wolters will have to be incredible for South Dakota State to even have a shot at the upset.
Whichever point guard does play better should be overshadowed by just how fun the two of them will be to watch by neutral fans. It is not everyday that two of the most exciting players in the country go head-to-head in an NCAA Tournament game and it should be great entertainment.