Last year around this time, Michigan and Trey Burke took a road trip to Columbus to play Ohio State. Back then, Burke was still a wide-eyed freshman; Michigan was ranked No. 20 in the AP and searching for national respect; Ohio State was as good as ever, ranked No. 4 and looking to make a statement against its neighbors to the north.
My, how things have changed.
Far from wide-eyed, in his second year with the Wolverines Trey Burke has emerged as a cold-blooded assassin and college basketball’s most feared point guard. Not only that, but Michigan appears to have switched roles with Ohio State, at least for the time being. The Wolverines are the ones entering Sunday’s match-up as the dominant national powerhouse, ranked No. 2 in the country behind only Duke. Ohio State is ranked No. 15 and looking to regain some of its early-season swagger after an embarrassing double-digit loss to Illinois.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same: Trey Burke is still from Columbus, Ohio State still passed on him in favor of Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott and there will still be plenty of Burke supporters at Value City Arena.
“I’m excited to go back home and play in front of my home town, and play in front of a lot of people who don’t get to come up and see me play at Michigan. It should be fun,” Burke said during a conference call on Friday. “I was really excited last year. Unfortunately, we lost, but we’re just as excited going in there and playing Ohio State this year.”
Last year, Burke said he made the match-up personal, using the fact that Ohio State hadn’t recruited him, a hometown kid, as motivation. Unfortunately, he said it may have backfired at times during last year’s game in Columbus.
One factor in playing Ohio State last year that won’t be there this year is Burke’s good friend and high school teammate, Jared Sullinger. Burke said Sullinger’s presence on Ohio State was almost impossible not to think about when preparing to play the Buckeyes last season.
“I think with Jared (Sullinger) being there last year that made it even more personal, just trying to beat him,” Burke said. “But I think, going into Sunday, I will remember those games but it won’t be anything that I’m thinking about. I’ll just be going to go out there and making plays for my team, doing what I can to get my team the win.
“I just wanted to beat Jared and just have bragging rights on him.”
Michigan’s game in Columbus last season did not go as hoped for the Wolverines. Burke notched 13 points, but matched his five assists with five turnovers en route to a 64-49 loss. If that high turnover number looks strange to someone watching Burke this year, it’s because Burke hasn’t had a game with five turnovers since Kansas State, after which Burke turned into a methodical, consistent, efficiency machine. Since that game, Burke has logged over two turnovers only once, against Arkansas.
It’s clear Burke is a much-improved player from his freshman year, and a lot of that has to do with his deeper knowledge and understanding of the game.
“Last year, I was out on the court just playing with natural ability. Now that I have a higher understanding and a higher IQ of the game I’m able to make the right plays,” Burke said. “Sometimes last year I wouldn’t make the right play – I might’ve passed when I should have shot, I might have shot when I should have passed. I think it was just a matter of getting a higher understanding of the game and just taking what they defense gives me.”
But while Burke has indeed improved his decision-making, much of his improvement comes simply from having a year under his belt. Now, the point guard knows what to expect going into a hostile road environment in the Big Ten. He is trying to pass that knowledge along to Michigan’s other Columbus-area native, Caris LeVert.
“(LeVert) is kind of in my situation last year. He doesn’t know what to expect,” Burke said. “I just try to tell him that it’s going to be just another game, another away game and it’s going to be really exciting just because the level of intensity is higher just because it’s Ohio State and Michigan and the rivalry. I just tell him to play the way he knows how to play and just go in there and act like any other game.”
Staying consistent with Michigan’s theme of focusing on day-to-day improvement in the face of immense early-season expectations, Burke sees getting better in the one area Michigan hasn’t been dominant as the key to the game.
“I think the keys will be defensive stops. Like I tell the team, every day: we know that we can score. We have a lot of options on offense but I think our biggest area of growth is defense. Limiting DeShaun Thomas’s touches and limiting his ability to put the ball in the hoop, I think those will be the two keys,” Burke said. “I know we’re on the road and sometimes on the road you don’t get all the calls. But we just have to continue to play through them types of calls. That’s something that we haven’t been doing good lately, sometimes we’ll complain to the ref and that makes the ref go the opposite direction. I think it’s just a matter of playing through calls, staying poised on the road, I think that’s the biggest thing, limiting DeShaun Thomas’s touches, and getting the best shots we can on offense.”
Last season, Burke was the one learning the ropes; this season, he’s the one teaching the freshmen what to expect going into Columbus. Last season, Michigan was the program looking for respect by beating a top-5 team; this season, Michigan is in the top-5 program looking for a statement win. Last season, Jared Sullinger gave this game a personal edge for Burke; this season, Burke insists that is no longer the case.
But Burke will still be playing in front of his hometown crowd, with about 20 people coming to the game just to see him. Ohio State still passed on him, the hometown kid. You can bet that these factors, along with Michigan’s goals as a team, will provide Burke with plenty of motivation to play his best.
“We’re real eager. We know it’s going to be a tough environment. We know what to expect,” Burke said. “We know that Ohio State is coming out to prove something. After the Illinois loss, we know they want to prove that they’re still one of the best teams in the Big Ten. We want to come out and prove to everyone and prove to the fans that we’re deserving of this ranking.”