Trey Burke was the best college basketball player in the country this season. Pretty much everyone agreed. The grade that he’s concerned about – where he lands in the NBA Draft – will come Thursday night but the 6-foot Columbus native cemented his legacy as one of the best players to ever play for Michigan.
Burke’s talent was obvious as a freshman but his sophomore season seemed to be a continuous Trey Burke highlight reel. Burke was remarkably consistent through the non-conference slate, the Big Ten season and the NCAA tournament while leading Michigan to the national championship game.
It’s impossible to talk about Burke’s season without sounding hyperbolic, but in his case it’s all justified. Burke was Michigan’s coach on the floor all season long, running John Beilein’s pick-and-roll action about as well as it can be run. Burke was superb at controlling everything that occurred on the offensive side of the floor and had a knack for making his decisions at just the right time — whether it was pulling up for a shot, driving to the basket, dumping the ball to one of Michigan’s bigs underneath or kicking to an open shooter.
There was exactly one time — Michigan’s first Big Ten road game of the season against Ohio State — that I can remember Burke even remotely flustered. He was the emotional core of his team and exemplified what it means to be a leader as a point guard. As this past season progressed, it became increasingly evident that Michigan would go as far as Burke would take them. He took them all the way to the final Monday, finishing out his Michigan career leading his team to the best Michigan basketball season in over two decades.
- Playing smart: There’s a lot of good stuff to say about Trey Burke’s season, but his decision-making stood out more than Michigan’s maize bleed-out jerseys. Burke, being a point guard, had the ball in his hands quite a bit, which means his usage rate was quite high — he ended almost 30 percent of Michigan’s possessions this year. But even though Burke shouldered a large portion of the offense for Michigan, he was still one of Michigan’s most efficient players, with an offensive efficiency rating of 121. Only two Michigan players had better efficiency ratings — Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas — and they were both used on about half as many possessions as Burke. It’s very difficult to handle the ball on every possession and be called upon to finish a large portion of them and be efficient doing it. Burke did, because of absolutely impeccable decision-making. A big part of this was his ability to stay in control. Even when he was in the post, making his way through the trees, he possessed a remarkable calm and was able to establish a pace that made it seem like he was playing the game on a different speed setting than everyone else. A more direct illustration of his terrific decision-making is his 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover rate for the season, 5th-best in the country. Burke made good decisions with the ball, whether it was passing or scoring, with amazing consistency all season long.
- Leadership: This is, of course, impossible to quantify. But a report card evaluating Trey Burke would not be complete without praise of his leadership skills. His freshman year, Burke was overshadowed a bit by two excellent senior leaders: Zack Novak and Stu Douglass. Even though he was the point guard, he may have been a bit hesitant to establish his leadership style as a freshman on an older team. The theme last summer was clear: “who will replace the graduated senior leadership?” The answer should have been obvious: Trey Burke. A lot more goes into being a leader than rousing the team in the huddle. Without knowing what went on behind the scenes, Burke successfully navigated his way to a harmonious on-and-off-court relationship with his backcourt mate, Tim Hardaway Jr. He had a big hand in helping Michigan’s talented freshmen find their way through their first college season. He came early to practice and stayed late, even working one-on-one with players like Caris LeVert after workouts. Burke led by example all season. That being said, rousing huddle speeches when the boys are on the ropes never hurt. I recall this quote from Glenn Robinson III after Michigan’s Sweet Sixteen win over Kansas: “The biggest thing (Burke) said that I took in was, ‘Believe.’ Just that. ‘We’re not losing this game. We’re going to come back and win this. We can’t go home without a victory.’ I believed him.”
- Making his teammates better with the ball screen: A funny thing happened on the way to Trey Burke having the best individual season of any Michigan player in recent memory: three talented freshmen made a relatively seamless transition from high school players to Division I stars capable of leading Michigan to a national title game. Burke’s success led directly to opportunities for his teammates, and that is definitely not something that’s true for most other high-scoring players. Burke’s primary vehicle for enabling his teammates was the high ball screen. He mastered the ball screen as well as anyone in the college game over the last decade and his drop off passes to Glenn Robinson III, roll passes to Mitch McGary and kick outs to Nik Stauskas won’t soon be forgotten.
Room for improvement
- Defensive intensity: Okay I really had to dig for these, so bear with me. This doesn’t mean Burke was a bad defender or even an average one. Burke made some astounding defensive plays this past season (remember this?) and even established a signature defensive move — we may as well term it “the Burke” — in which, he would routinely pick-pocket opposing point guards as they attempted a spin move. He even used this move to win a particularly important game against a certain cross-state rival (remember this?). He even made what was probably the best block of the college basketball season in the national title game against Louisville — even if it wasn’t called as such. However, there were times when it felt like Burke may have “picked his spots” on the defensive side of the ball. Being smaller, it was sometimes difficult for him to keep bigger guards out of the paint, especially when they played very physical. It’s understandable if Burke’s intensity on defense was a bit hot-and-cold, considering the immense offensive load he carried for the Wolverines all year. But while individual pivotal defensive plays in clutch moments may have been a strength, consistency of effort on defense wasn’t really.
- Shot selection: Yes, “playing smart” was a strength just a few paragraphs ago. And yes, that implies that Burke’s shot selection was good. And for the most part, it was. Even so, there were certainly times when it could have been better. Burke shot 38 percent from beyond the arc this season. That is pretty good, but it may not be quite good enough to warrant some of the shots Burke took well beyond the NBA 3-point line. There were times when it seemed as though Burke would launch frustration threes, hoping to get his offense going with a dramatic pull-up. I would bring up some of his late-clock shooting, but as Dylan showed us a month ago, he was actually dominant in those situations. There were accusations throughout this season of Burke playing “hero ball,” and it did feel like he sometimes had a flair for the dramatic in end-of-game situations (mainly via the step-back three), but overall he had an excellent success rate in late-clock situations. Also he did this. Look, the guy was the best player in the country. Weaknesses are hard to come by.
Trey Burke was the consensus best player in college basketball and led Michigan to its best season in two decades. He will go down in Michigan history as the best point guard the program has ever seen and it’s only a matter of time before his #3 jersey hangs from the Crisler Center rafters.
Bottom Line: When Michigan began recruiting Trey Burke, he wasn’t wanted by his home state school and he had previously committed to Penn State only because he thought it was the best offer he was going to get. He grabbed Michigan’s starting point guard spot definitively as a freshman and never let go even a little bit. Now, Burke is a lottery pick and is projected to be selected in the top ten picks of this year’s NBA draft. What a delight it’s been to watch the development of such a transcendent college superstar.
The impact Trey Burke had on Michigan’s basketball program can’t really be measured, but it’s big. I can tell you this because I hear it over and over again: because of Burke, high school kids see Michigan as a “point guard’s dream” — Burke, with some help from Darius Morris, has made Michigan a positive destination for some of the nation’s top playmaking talent. As far as an image for the program, Burke put a face on Michigan’s success, a face that was nearly flawless; Burke went about his business the right way, said all the right things without being a bore and backed up all the hype surrounding him night in and night out on the court with remarkable consistency. A basketball coaching staff, let alone a fan base, can’t ask for anything more from its best player. Burke’s career at Michigan may have been short, but it was legendary, and its memory will always be cherished for Michigan fans. It was a true pleasure to watch Trey Burke don the Maize and Blue.