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Zach Travis | April 10, 2013

The Dagger

Trey Burke's ascent from middling recruit to the best player in college basketball

In sports, you know it when you see it. That back-breaking free throw or first-down run. It’s the moment where the possible once again seems impossible, and your fleeting hope of a miracle is crushed under the weight of reality. The lead is too large. The odds are too long.

It’s called The Dagger for a reason; it takes the life out of you.

But “The Dagger” isn’t about the moment, but rather the emotional release built up over hundreds and thousands of moments that you’ve invested yourself in completely. Wrapped up tight in the belief of your team in its quest for greatness. It could be the cap on a hard fought game or a championship run cut short. Your heart sinks in an instant, your face goes pale, and you fall into your seat breathless. It’s called The Dagger for a reason; it takes the life out of you.

The sports we love and watch endlessly, despite them being childish games elevated to battles of country and clashes of the very best athletes on earth, have been raised up for this very reason. Somewhere long ago, someone sitting on the sideline watching kids kick a ball picked a side and gave themself over to a team completely. It felt really good. It also felt really bad.

Two weeks ago, The Dagger appeared to fall on Michigan basketball’s 2012-13 season. A team that started out a collection of underclassmen and hype playing in the strongest conference in the country, led by a 6-foot tall, do-everything point guard from the heart of enemy territory. Michigan spent the season ushering its fans along a rollercoaster of emotion. Early on, the Wolverines posted the best start in school history, reached No. 1 in the polls for the first time since the "Fab Five" laced up their black high-tops in Crisler Arena, and looked poised to contend for a national title. The Big Ten season was a mess of crushing losses and thrilling victories that led to more crushing losses and lowered expectations as the NCAA tournament loomed. Michigan limped into the postseason with a .500 record over its last dozen games, and just as the ship began to right itself and Michigan’s fortunes turned yet again — winning the first two tournament games in runaway fashion — the Kansas game happened.

Elijah Johnson — a fitting foil in this game — rose up on the left wing over the outstretched hand of Tim Hardaway Jr. to knock down a 3-pointer that pushed the lead to a seemingly insurmountable 14 points with under seven minutes remaining. The air left my lungs and I slumped onto the couch to start writing the story of the game that in my mind was all but over. That shot felt like The Dagger, a microcosm of the game thus far where Kansas did whatever it pleased and the Wolverines clawed like hell to keep up. It was ultimately the same story you could write about any Michigan basketball team of the last 15 years. In the end, there was never enough.

Unbeknownst to me, Trey Burke had decided to take his own shot at writing the story of the game, complete with a Dagger of his own. It was the story he’d been working on for years.

11/11/11
Trey Burke played 18 minutes in his first game as a Wolverine, making just one shot on seven attempts (a 3-pointer) and not registering a single assist. It is the only game of his career in which he didn’t record an assist, and one of just two career games in which he wouldn’t play more than 30 minutes.
Photo credit: Getty Images

Alfonso “Trey” Burke III strolled onto campus just under two years ago. A skinny freshman who made himself appear taller than his actual height thanks to sneakers and that particular stretch toward the sky that teen boys master in an effort to gain that extra inch at the doctors office — the growth they hope is still coming. He was just a three-star, the 142nd overall recruit in the basketball class of 2011, just barely sneaking into the Rivals' 150. In Rivals' position rankings, he was considered the 26th best point guard prospect in the 2011 class. You could field two 12-man rosters with the point guard prospects considered better than him, and he still wouldn’t be the odd man out.

Trey Burke spent the entirety of his still burgeoning basketball career doing nothing but winning.

While he was overlooked as a recruit, he wasn’t as a prep player. Trey Burke spent the entirety of his still burgeoning basketball career doing nothing but winning. He was such a dominant force at the youngest levels of the game that the league he played in actually changed the rules to limit him from stealing the ball from the other team before it crossed half court (link). He would recount the story proudly years later. Of course it was that easy. It always was.

During Burke’s high school career, he saw unprecedented success, losing just five games while winning 97. He was one of only three players to never lose a City League game — the two others were teammates. Burke played alongside future Buckeye recruits J.D. Weatherspoon and Jared Sullinger at Northland High School in Columbus, Ohio, and he was coached by Sullinger’s father, Satch. The diminutive point guard was second fiddle to his more highly touted teammates during high school, but they won a state championship together before Sullinger left for an impressive career at hometown Ohio State (Weatherspoon eventually transfered to Toledo after two years on the bench at OSU).

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With Sullinger on his way out, Burke took over the team entering his senior year, and the time seemed right to explore other options past the verbal commitment he had made to Penn State, the first school to offer him a scholarship. Burke rescinded that commitment in May of his junior year of high school. It was a move born more out of uncertainty of the program’s direction than a player climbing the ladder to high-major offers. Said Burke’s father at the time, "He was concerned if the staff would be there when he arrives. And then, the ability of getting some guys to come in there with him. It was really tough to tell [the staff] he was re-opening his recruitment. But he did it." (link) Burke had been winning his whole life, and while he was grateful to the Penn State staff for the opportunity, the ability to win at the next level was important to him. He had never known anything else.

Burke was still largely a mid-major prospect because of his size and the concern that he had not established himself as a high-level prospect separate from his best friend Jared Sullinger. His best offers were Iowa, Miami (Fla.), Cincinnati, Oklahoma State, and Michigan, and he set out on the summer AAU circuit before his senior year with a particular goal in mind. While he did not rocket up the rankings, the reviews were all impressive. He was beginning to turn heads on his own. He flashed a wide array of shots, and an ability to take control of the game. The scouts fawned: “Though he is a point guard, Burke has the natural instinct and ability to score, and when he gets into a rhythm he can be lethal from three. With All-Ohio in the lead, Burke really got it going for himself and others, and was the catalyst in blowing it wide open for them.” (link) Still, he languished as a three-star prospect. Too small for the high-major college game.

Late in the summer, he closed his recruitment for good, pledging to Michigan before starting a senior season that saw him average 24 points per game, lead his team to the state finals, and win Ohio Mr. Basketball. Even without Sullinger, Trey Burke was winning in impressive fashion.

Upon Burke signing the official Letter of Intent to attend Michigan — choosing the Wolverines over recent favorite Cincinnati — coach John Beilein summed up what qualities his new point guard possessed: “In Trey Burke we are adding a proven winner and floor general to our basketball program. He combines a competitive spirit, quickness and poise on the court to provide leadership, and his skill set allows him to impact the game as a passer, a scorer and a shooter.” (link)

Trey Burke was still just a legend in his own mind.

Beilein saw it, and a few other coaches had an idea of the talent that the scrappy point guard possessed, but at that time Trey Burke was still just a legend in his own mind. You don't shock the world as a little known freshman. Not as a kid that couldn't play his way into a scholarship offer from his hometown school, Ohio State. Who picked Michigan after a short commitment to Penn State, swapping one team that hadn't been relevant in basketball in over a decade for another. Still, his confidence never wavered. Burke knew success was on the horizon. When asked about his ultimate decision — one that came down to Michigan and Cincinnati — Burke was candid, saying, “They have a young team, and I can tell that when I get there, we’re going to do some special things.” (link)

He spent the next two seasons backing those words up and taking Michigan to heights it hadn’t seen in two decades, all the while wearing the nonplussed look of someone who couldn't understand how it took everyone else so long to figure out he was for real.

11/22/11
Against Duke in the Maui Invitational semifinal, Burke scored 17 points and added nine assists in 39 minutes — a better statistical performance than the previous year’s departed point guard, Darius Morris, had managed (16 pts, 6 ast) in the second-round NCAA tournament loss to the Blue Devils. Michigan still lost by seven, doomed by first-half offensive struggles (22 points on 28 possessions), but it was an important game developmentally for Michigan as well as its new point guard, who was beginning to assert himself as the team leader.
Photo credit: USA Today Sports Images

Michigan basketball has existed, for the better part of my life, in a state somewhere between hell and purgatory. A once-proud program crippled by its quest for greatness and the shady characters who lurked in the shadows of college basketball. It was a long fall from the top.

The program won a still iconic title when I wasn't yet five years old. Age didn't matter. I knew Rumeal Robinson, I had seen those free throws in my mind and on grainy highlight tape, and listened to my father recount the game and speak in awed tones of Robinson, Glen Rice, and the rest of that team. None of these were my memories, but I appropriated them all as my own and built the basis of my fandom around those moments as they were told to me in the following years; memories that would keep me warm through a lot of long, dark winters.

Michigan basketball has existed, for the better part of my life, in a state somewhere between hell and purgatory.

Within a few years, Michigan was the epicenter of '90s college basketball. A whirling tornado of trash talk, swagger, and black socks and sneakers. It was the time of Chris Webber and Jalen Rose, among five freshmen who would shock the world. Michigan set out to do just that, and the heights are nearly as high as the disappointments are low. The team came up short, twice, delivered a highlight that will haunt Michigan fans — a Dagger of its own — until the end of time, and put a sad coda on the age of Michigan as a basketball powerhouse. It was a bittersweet end to an exciting run of quasi-greatness that never quite established itself as anything other than “just short” or “all talk” depending on what team’s colors you were wearing. In the end, the Fab Five were defined more by their attitude and place in the culture than by their ability to win when it mattered most. Not that it mattered to me. I wasn't yet 10 years old, but I was in love with a basketball team, shooting baskets in my driveway at a rickety backboard and envisioning myself in maize and blue.

Then the malaise set in as Michigan's program kept hitting the wall. Big recruits would walk into Crisler Arena, but always in the shadow of those before them. The names ring out as a list of burnouts and wasted potential. Sad stories, each of them. Condemned to a life of disappointment and “what ifs” in the minds of fans.

1/21/12
Against Arkansas, Michigan fell behind big in the first half — the largest deficit being 20 points — and fought back thanks in part to Burke, whose last-second 3-pointer for the win rattled in and out at the buzzer. Burke added seven rebounds, a steal and a block, doing a little bit of everything in the failed comeback attempt.
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the ensuing NCAA sanctions would hang over the program like a dark cloud for the next decade.

The first group held promise. Robert "Tractor" Traylor helped lead Michigan to an NIT championship, earning himself tournament MVP in the process. Both trophies might as well be lists of opportunities missed and expectations unmet. Louis Bullock, a sweet shooting two-guard with ice in his veins left Michigan with only the hollow shell of the shooting records he set that were soon rescinded after his role in the Ed Martin scandal was uncovered. Jerod Ward was the most highly regarded recruit out of high school as well as the least productive. Maurice Taylor and Maceo Baston both burst onto the scene as freshmen, but neither could get Michigan back to its perch. This era provided the death knell for Michigan basketball as the Martin scandal and the ensuing NCAA sanctions would hang over the program like a dark cloud for the next decade.

When I was in high school, it was names like Jamal Crawford, Kevin Gaines and Dommanic Ingerson. All three washed out for different reasons. Not one of them delivered Michigan even a modicum of the success for which fans pined. Michigan basketball was the little guy for the first time in years. Losing seasons were the norm. Michigan was a crippled power, clinging to the past and desperately wanting some semblance of the success it once had. A legend in its own mind.

The Brian Ellerbe years gave way to the Tommy Amaker years — also my years as an undergrad. Michigan pushed back. Players like Daniel Horton, Dion Harris, DeShawn Sims, and Manny Harris were good, stuck around, and got Michigan its first national ranking in eight years (21st, following back-to-back upset wins against Michigan State and Wisconsin in late January). But just as Michigan seemed poised for a breakthrough there was a backslide, and Amaker never did end up delivering the NCAA tournament bid that was always supposed to be right around the corner. Thus, things fell to John Beilein, a coaching veteran of over three decades who had won at every level but had plateaued at West Virginia. The sanctions for the Martin sandal had long passed, and it was Beilein’s turn to try and improve the basketball culture in Ann Arbor.

1/29/12
In Burke’s first college match-up against his best friend and former teammate, Jared Sullinger of the Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan lost by 15 points as Burke hit less than half his 11 shots and threw away as many turnovers — five — as assists. A 3-point game at the half was blown wide open as Burke was stymied at times by the physical defense of Buckeye point guard Aaron Craft.
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From the moment Trey Burke stepped on campus, the pressure was already on. The previous year’s starter and offensive catalyst, Darius Morris, had left the team just a few months earlier to enter the NBA draft, eventually selected with the 41st pick.

Morris was a much different player than Burke. He was a long, wiry waterbug who used that length and athleticism to slice through defenses and seemingly pass over, around, and through helpless collapsing defenders. Not much of a shooter — just 25 percent from three his sophomore year — Morris was a savant when it came to the pick-and-roll. When he ran it, the play seemed specially made for him. Hard-hedges or soft, over the screen or under it, it hardly mattered what decision a defense made outside of the fact that it made one at all. Morris was set to exploit the openings that were created, and he did so with aplomb. He was strong going to the rim and deft at finding near-microscopic passing lanes. A year after the departure of both Harris and Sims, when Michigan was supposed to backslide even further from a disappointing 2009-10 campaign, Morris helped carry the Wolverines to the second round of the NCAA tournament, and Michigan was a missed Morris floater at the buzzer away from a Sweet 16 trip with an upset of No. 1 seed Duke. He was the best point guard I had seen at Michigan since Jalen Rose.

But Morris plied his breakout sophomore year into an NBA roster spot, and Michigan was left to pick up the pieces, once again the air seemed to be escaping from the balloon just before the party started. While Michigan had put together a solid season the year before, this was still largely a ragtag bunch of Wolverines. Led by junior captains Zack Novak and Stu Douglass, a couple of Indiana kids with little in the way of recruiting profiles or other interest from even mid-major programs at the time of their commitment (the first sign of Beilein’s ability to identify and develop underappreciated talent).

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Michigan’s recruiting fortunes had only begun to turn in the last couple years. Morris was one of the first analyst-approved recruits that Beilein was able to bring to campus and top-100 players like Evan Smotrycz and Carlton Brundidge signaled a positive shift for Michigan recruiting at the time. But those players were all young — either freshmen or sophomores — and Michigan’s roster still felt like a weird amalgamation of role players and castoffs.

So the situation Burke walked into as a freshman seemed to be a tenuous one at best. Morris had driven the offense the year before as the primary ball-handler and creator, giving Michigan’s wings shooting opportunities and bringing along unheralded big Jordan Morgan in his redshirt freshman year. Morris would also have been the only true returning point guard, and his absence left a gaping hole in the roster. Michigan’s options at the point looked to be Douglass, a two guard, reserve guard Eso Akunne, or the freshman Burke.

As things go, Burke wasn’t even the highest rated recruit coming to Ann Arbor. That would be Brundidge, a compact bowling ball of a combo guard whose specialty was slashing to the basket. But Burke brought the passing skills and shooting touch that Beilein could use in his complex offense and was much more in the mix to play early given the needs of the team. However, it seemed clear in the offseason that there would be a shift in philosophy. While Burke flashed passing skills as a recruit, he was replacing a much different player — the larger, stronger Morris — who was successful because he relied on his strength to bully opposing guards. Morris had the third best assist rate in the nation as a sophomore, and willed a team that started the 6’5 Novak at the four position within an inch of the Sweet 16 with his ability to control the half court and create openings and mismatches for his teammates. Burke’s strengths as a scorer would have to pick up the slack for what he was unable to provide as a facilitator, or so it seemed. He would have to do all of it while learning Beilein’s offense — something it took Morris two years to do.

2/18/12
Three weeks after the first match-up it was Burke’s time to shine as No. 6 Ohio State visited Michigan. The Wolverines controlled the game from the outset en route to a 56-51 victory — a split in the regular-season series that proved to be very valuable as the end of the conference season drew near. Burke finished the game with 17 points and five assists, including four points in the final 90 seconds to keep Michigan comfortably ahead. It was a signature win on the biggest stage of the season, and one that that kept Michigan in the hunt for a share of the conference title. It was also abundantly clear whose team it was: Trey Burke’s.
Photo credit: USA Today Sports Images

The 2011-12 season started off well for the young Wolverines. Burke quickly took the reins at point guard and Michigan posted 10 wins in the non-conference season. The two losses came against ACC foes, the first to Duke in the Maui invitational. The second against 23-win Virginia in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. Understandable losses for a young but plucky team.

It was clear almost from the beginning that Trey Burke wasn’t just any freshman point guard.

It was clear almost from the beginning that Trey Burke wasn’t just any freshman point guard. After a slow start in his first game he posted double-digit scoring in 10 of the next 11 games, and put together four games with seven or more assists. His game was certainly different than Morris’. Where Morris used his strength and size to attack the defense, Burke relied on his lightning quick first step to create separation, and once he turned the corner he had a bevy of effective shots in his arsenal. There were the Iverson-esque drives to the basket against players nearly a foot taller than him where Burke hung in the air just a split second long enough to find an opening for his shot. He could also pull up with ease from 15-feet or launch a soft floater over outstretched arms. If he was bored with those, or the defender was quick to recover on the possibility of a drive, Burke could freeze almost anyone with a crossover and step back for an open 3-pointer, which he made at a rate of 35 percent in his first year. His game was exactly what scouts had pegged it for when he was still in high school. He was a scorer, and when his game was on could carry the team and provide for them.

He was also still a freshman, and while he played great at times, there were freshman mistakes, defensive lapses, and scoring droughts. It took him awhile to warm up his 3-point shot early in the season, and his turnover rate hovered over 20 percent during non-conference play. When he was on, he was often very dangerous, giving Michigan an effective scoring weapon that opposing defenses had to account for — in turn opening up opportunities for his teammates. However, when he was off, Michigan’s offense struggled and he forced shots to try and generate a spark. While Burke was able to fill the shoes of the departed Morris in many ways, his proficiency in the pick-and-roll offense that had become a staple of Beilein’s game plan at Michigan was hurt by his size. Whereas Morris was able to rip apart hard-hedge defense on pick-and-roll plays, Burke was too small and too error prone when it came to taking advantage of the openings that this pressure created, struggling at times as teams threw everything but the kitchen sink at him.

Yet, with Burke leading the way, Michigan was very often good enough and sometimes bordering on great. The Wolverines were able to play their way to a share of the Big Ten title, adding the first conference championship banner to the Crisler rafters since the mid-'80s. Burke shared Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors with Indiana’s Cody Zeller, was named second-team All-Big Ten and All-American, and was the only freshman nominated for the Cousy Award, for the country's top point guard. In the course of a few short months on campus, he helped lead Michigan basketball back to relevance, and every one of Michigan’s biggest wins that season — vs. OSU, vs. MSU, vs. IU — had Trey Burke’s name written all over them.

Despite an up-and-down year, the future seemed bright. That is, if there was to be any future at all.

3/10/12, 3/16/12
In the course of one week, Michigan’s 2011-12 season ended with a thud in two separate, but devastating, tournament losses. The first to OSU in the Big Ten tournament semifinal, and the second to Ohio University in the NCAA tournament first round 4-13 match-up. In those two games Burke combined to go 6-of-26 from the floor and 2-of-16 from three with 10 turnovers and nine assists. Michigan’s improved regular season was still giving way to the same postseason disappointment that had defined the program since the ‘89 championship team.
Photo credit: USA Today Sports Images

It wasn’t just college basketball fans that noticed Trey Burke’s ascent to the top of the college game. NBA front offices were watching too, and in a little under a year the point guard from Columbus, Ohio had risen from the 26th best point guard prospect in the 2011 recruiting class to being a possible draft pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. The questions started immediately in the aftermath of Michigan’s early exit from the NCAA tournament, but Burke dodged them:

“I’m not really thinking about [the NBA draft]. I’m so disappointed in the way we lost, it’s not really in my mind right now. If it comes, it comes. You’ve just got to move on, man. It definitely hurts. The only thing on my mind is losing that game.” (link)

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With the deadline for withdrawing ones name and retaining NCAA eligibility just three weeks away, April 10, fans were understandably nervous. The potential was there for Michigan to lose two point guards to the NBA in as many seasons. While that is undoubtedly a sign of progress for a program that had not sent many players to the NBA in the recent past, it was little consolation to fans that wanted to see Michigan improve on its promising 2011-12 season.

Furthermore, the Wolverines were set to bring in an exciting class of recruits that summer — the best class that John Beilein had put together during his time in Ann Arbor — headlined by the then top-five prospect Mitch McGary, a 6’10 prep-school forward/center. The Wolverines were also looking at adding a lot of length and athleticism on the wings as rapidly rising senior and NBA offspring Glenn Robinson III was making a push toward five-star status and had been in the fold for some time. The third recruit was 6’6 wing, Nik Stauskas, a Canadian import who tantalized fans with YouTube videos of him shooting threes in his backyard, making nearly all of them. The three represented what many thought were the missing pieces that Michigan needed — a multi-tool big man to roam the middle, a stretch-four that Beilein’s offense’s traditionally depended on, and a shoot-the-lights-out wing to punish collapsing defenders.

But Burke, ever the competitor in search of a greater challenge, saw the NBA as a golden opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream. Burke's father outlined his son’s thought process:

“There are a lot of things out there that are saying he could be a first-rounder, so he thought it'd be in his best interest to at least solidify that information. That's all, he wants to know more, he wants to see where he's at. He knows right now that he's probably as hot a point guard prospect in college as he may ever get. He just wants to see what happens.” (link)

NBA scouts saw an intriguing prospect who would be a sure-thing lottery pick if he were three inches taller. Yet height kept his draft grade vague, and most experts such as ESPN’s Chad Ford argued that Burke should stay, as a strong sophomore season could solidify him as a first-round pick (link).

NBA scouts saw an intriguing prospect who would be a sure-thing lottery pick if he were three inches taller.

Still, it was a tense three weeks for Michigan fans. Rumors swirled as to what advice Burke was getting, people commiserated on message boards, trying to deal with the idea of life after Burke. The whole frenzied mess was encapsulated perfectly in a photo; a picture of Trey Burke’s dorm room in early April, his belongings packed into black garbage bags (link). He was all but gone, and Michigan fans were left to confront the fear that the program’s return to glory was to forever be a Sisyphean task, always doomed to fall short just as it seemed the top of the hill was near. It was another in a long series of Daggers. Or so it seemed.

Just as quickly as the panic took over, it was gone. Four days later, on April 9, Burke announced he would be returning (link). We could all breathe again.

11/27/12
After a solid start to the season, including wins vs. Pitt and Kansas State, Michigan faced off against its toughest foe of the non-conference season, a talent laden N.C. State team that was ranked 18th in the country. Burke scored 18 points on 5-of-9 shooting, add 11 assists, two steals and a block, all without a single turnover. Michigan controlled the game throughout and walked away with a seven-point win. He was back, and he was better than ever.
Photo credit: USA Today Sports Images
Burke had to face an even bigger question: could he improve on his runaway freshman success?

With the question of whether or not to return behind him, Burke had to face an even bigger question: could he improve on his runaway freshman success? Morris had used his one offseason in Ann Arbor to make the leap, but Burke had already established himself as arguably a better player from the outset. The sky was the limit, but the potential fall was daunting. There were holes in his game that he knew he would have to confront. The cold streaks shooting from the floor are the easy ones to address: shoot for hour after hour. The harder issues to address were the things that plagued him within the structure of Michigan’s offense. Specifically, the way teams adjusted to try and slow the pick-and-roll and deny him his ability to get into the lane where he is most dangerous. He was frank about this after the Chicago skills camps over the summer: "I had to learn how to read the way teams were guarding me and then adjust to score and get my teammates involved. I had to get in the film room and learn all the reads off pick-and-rolls and it has really paid off for me.” (link) Burke understood that teams would be coming at him hard. He was the center of Michigan’s offense and everyone had a year’s worth of film on him. There was no more sneaking up on anyone anymore.

Along with the Chicago skills camp, Burke, along with Hardaway Jr., made the rounds at a number of prestigious camps. He turned heads at each one. At the LeBron James Skills Academy, Burke was recognized as possibly the best guard in attendance, flashing an uncanny ability to create his own shot and open up shots for others (link). His offensive repertoire at the Chris Paul camp turned heads as well, as he used the threat of his quickness and improved shot to freeze just about everyone with jab steps and pull-up jumpers (link).

It was the kind of summer that had Michigan fans salivating. Burke was refining his already devastating offensive game, and adding emphasis on his ability to get teammates involved, as he told ESPN’s Chantel Jennings, “My focus is to bring more to the team than just scoring, I am trying to get everyone involved and making others around me better.” (link) Given the level of talent that was soon to arrive in Ann Arbor, Michigan was becoming a trendy pick to win the Big Ten title, and Trey Burke was coming in as the favorite for a number of pre-season honors, popping up on All-American teams and national award watchlists almost daily.

The same kid who, a year prior, wasn’t even a lock to start for a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team, was suddenly one of the hottest commodities in the college game leading a preseason top-five team.

1/13/13
With a shot at No. 1 on the line, Michigan traveled to Columbus to take on last season’s tormentors, the 15th-ranked OSU Buckeyes. Ohio State blitzed Michigan into an early hole, running up a 21-point lead over the first 13 minutes of game time. The Wolverines came back, cutting the deficit to 12 at the half and outscoring Ohio State 31-22 in the second stanza, but the comeback would fall short the same way it did against Arkansas the year before: with an in-and-out Burke 3-point shot that would have given Michigan the lead with time winding down.
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Michigan opened the 2012-13 season at home against fan favorite, Slippery Rock — a team whose football scores have been announced at Michigan home games since the tradition started in 1959 (link) when then-announcer Steve Filipiak got a kick out the funny name he saw on the score ticker. The goodwill didn’t extend to that November night, as Michigan hung triple digits on the Rockets, which was the first 100-point Michigan game since 2007. It was the beginning of an offensive explosion for the Wolverines, led by the much-improved Burke who was now surrounded by the kind of elite offensive talent that point guards dream about.

Burke confirmed everyone’s suspicion: he had gotten better in the offseason. A lot better.

The Wolverines raced off to a 16-0 start, the best in school history, as Burke confirmed everyone’s suspicion: he had gotten better in the offseason. A lot better.

The numbers were staggering. Over the non-conference season, he tallied 96 assists to just 25 turnovers while scoring 17.7 points per game. What’s more, with the addition of Stauskas and Robinson III on the wings, Michigan was now a deadly offensive team that was capable of feeding off Burke to bury teams under offensive breakouts. Michigan was riding an average scoring margin of 21 points, and had one of the most statistically efficient offenses in the nation. Furthermore, Burke’s play vaulted him from All-American candidate to Player of the Year candidate. He was scoring at will and leading his teammates through a high-wire circus act filled with kick-out threes and alley-oops. Michigan was playing some of the best looking basketball of any team in the nation, and the Wolverines firmly established themselves as national title contenders.

They just had to make it through the Big Ten season first.

3/06/13
After Purdue stormed back before halftime and eventually built a 12-point lead with 12 to play, Trey Burke took control. Having only scored five to that point in the game, he scored 21 down the stretch and finished the game making seven-of-eight free throws to deliver Michigan the win and keep the Wolverines' title hopes alive for one more game.
Photo credit: USA Today Sports Images

For as maligned as the Big Ten has been on the gridiron, the conference has no such problems when it comes to the hardwood. Michigan State and Ohio State have been two of the strongest programs in the country in the last decade and under Tom Crean, Indiana has made strides to regain its perch at the top of the college game. When one considers the always-maddening Badgers of Wisconsin and dangerous Illinois and Purdue programs, the Big Ten has talent at the top and enough depth to make the 18-game conference schedule a slog. The previous season saw Michigan split the title with Ohio State and Michigan State as all three programs finished with five losses. This year’s conference season looked to be even tougher with Indiana entering the season as the top team in the land and the rest of the conference bringing back a lot of talent and experience. KenPom’s adjusted conference ratings had the Big Ten comfortably ahead of the second-place Big East all year.

It was also proof that Michigan was far from invincible.

Of course, Michigan’s first two wins were 90-plus point scoring performances over Northwestern and Iowa, both 28-point margins of victory. But after a grind-it out-win against Nebraska in Lincoln, Michigan dropped its first game of the season against Ohio State. The Wolverines won four more games before embarking on quite possibly the toughest 10-day stretch of any college basketball team in the 2012-13 season. Michigan faced the four other teams that sat at or near the top of the conference, three of those games on the road, and all of it happened in the first two weeks of February.

It was also proof that Michigan was far from invincible.

The Wolverines dropped the first game against Indiana, as they once again fell into an early hole from which they simply couldn’t come back. A few days later, Michigan survived the return visit from Ohio State in a game that went to overtime and featured a clash of the Big Ten’s two best point guards. Trey Burke helped Michigan late, but it was Hardaway Jr.’s fireworks that meant the most to the Wolverines. Michigan went on to lose to Wisconsin thanks to a buzzer-beating heave from half court that drained the life from Michigan and sent the game to overtime. The final game in the four game stretch, a beat down at the hands of Michigan State, put Michigan’s Big Ten title hopes on ice and raised serious concerns about Michigan’s defensive and rebounding ability.

Michigan’s hot start to the season was sidetracked. The high-flying offense was slowed down and pushed around in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten. The Wolverines lost twice more in the regular season. First to Penn State in Happy Valley — the first Big Ten win for the Nittany Lions this season — and then to Indiana in a heartbreaking collapse in the final minute. The Big Ten tournament went about the same as Michigan bowed out in the second round to Wisconsin. Through it all, Trey Burke remained the constant. Michigan’s freshmen wings both struggled with inconsistency as Stauskas’ hot shooting start to the season regressed to the mean as the defensive intensity ramped up and Robinson III was exposed when he was forced to check big-bodied power forwards on defense. Jordan Morgan all but disappeared offensively as Mitch McGary began to assert himself, and Hardaway Jr. continued the hot and cold routine he’d been doing since his sophomore year.

Still, Burke controlled games and willed Michigan to wins, pulling his team along every step of the way. Over that same 12-game stretch, Burke scored 20 points or more seven times and never scored fewer than 16. He also averaged just fewer than six assists and two steals per game with only two turnovers per game. But Burke wasn’t immune to struggles, and it was his missed free throw, the front end of a one-and-one opportunity, late in the Indiana game that will hang over this team’s head.

3/29/13
After blazing its way through the first weekend of the tournament, dispatching South Dakota State with ease before demolishing Virginia Commonweath’s famed “havoc” press, Michigan was set to square off with Kansas, the No. 1 seed in the South Region.
Photo credit: USA Today Sports Images

The Jayhawks had a lackluster first weekend, sleepwalking through the 1-16 game vs. Western Kentucky before falling behind early vs. eighth seed North Carolina. However, it was the performance of a sleeping giant, one that came alive just when it needed to in order to bury UNC with a second-half offensive barrage of 49 points coupled with a 10-minute stretch to open the second half where Kansas only allowed eight points.

Kansas had rolled through most of the regular season. With the exception of a three-game slide in the beginning of February, the Jayhawks had lost only their second game of the year against Michigan State, and the final game at Baylor. The Jayhawks built their success on defense, featuring one of the most efficient units in the nation that was anchored by 7-foot center Jeff Withey. The big man in the middle controlled games on both ends of the court, posting the fifth best block rate in the nation and helping Kansas field the best 2-point percentage defense of any team in the country.

Photo credit: USA Today Sports Images

On the outside the Jayhawks relied on Ben McLemore, a likely top-five pick in this summer’s NBA draft. The talented redshirt freshman provided Kansas with a dynamic offensive weapon, one that could rise up from three (42 percent on 174 attempts) or attack the rim (72 percent on shots at the rim). He was a match-up nightmare for whichever Wolverine was tasked with guarding him.

Kansas presented a stiff test for Michigan. The Jayhawks were a big, strong, defensive team that controlled the paint — the very formula Michigan struggled against during Big Ten play.

But Michigan had Trey Burke, the newly-crowned Big Ten Player of the Year.

Things stayed even until the first media timeout, but from there, the Jayhawks began to assert control over the game. Kansas went on a 10-2 run over the next three and a half minutes, and it seemed like Michigan’s defense was simply incapable of handling the onslaught. Kansas was forcing misses on defense and turning those rebounds into fast break opportunities. There was little Michigan could do as Kansas got to the rim at will, and by halftime the Jayhawks had hit 70 percent of their shots en route to 40 points.

Had you watched the game without knowledge of the score, you would have likely thought Michigan was down a lot more than it was. The Wolverines were just six points back at half, ostensibly because of McGary’s strong play inside. And while his offensive rebounding and ability to finish regardless of the presence of Jeff Withey was impressive, Michigan’s point guard still had his fingerprints all over the game. While Burke didn’t shoot the ball well early, he attacked Kansas’ perimeter defense and got into the lane, thereby drawing Withey into a dilemma: challenge Burke’s shot or stay home on McGary. This do-or-die decision let Burke influence the game even when his shot wasn’t falling.

Out of the half, Michigan made its run, closing the deficit to as little as two points in the opening minutes and building positive momentum, but Kansas once again had the answer, and halfway into the second period of action it felt like it was the Jayhawks game as the lead slowly grew. And as Elijah Johnson rose up for the 3-point shot that pushed the lead to 14 points — the shot that left me sprawled out on the couch in anguish — he wasn’t just driving a stake through Michigan’s short NCAA tournament run, he was providing the final blow to the career of Trey Burke, who was almost certain to leave for the NBA after such a remarkable season; the revival of Michigan basketball once again cut down in March.

it couldn’t have happened any other way; Trey Burke wouldn’t have let it.

Looking back on it now, it feels like it couldn’t have happened any other way; Trey Burke wouldn’t have let it. Nostalgia is a funny thing. It lends credence to the idea that fate is a thing and we were all so powerless to refute its advances. It makes those few minutes at the end of this game and in overtime seem much simpler and less extraordinary than they really were. Would you rather these things be meant to happen, sent down from the heavens etched in stone? Is that remarkable enough for you?

It isn’t for me. And I think Burke would agree. He spent his life winning games in every conceivable way, and even when things went wrong, it was Burke that took the last shot, for better or worse. Has it always been fate?

The problem with fate is that it demystifies life. It robs humans of the agency in which we find the greatest examples of achievement. In the aftermath of this I’m not the first person to say it: clutch doesn’t exist (link). But once you allow yourself to get past the idea that Michigan was meant to win and Burke is infused with some otherworldly clutchness, you’re left with a series of events, and taken together in the context of a Sweet 16 game in a massive cathedral to athletic achievement (and Jerry Jones’ ego) played under a high definition scoreboard that dwarfed the actual playing surface, the whole thing looks breathtakingly beautiful for the very reason that it is so exceedingly rare. Ten-point comebacks with three minutes left against No. 1 seeds in March are the equivalent of 100 coin flips coming up heads. That it happens to your team? One thousand coin flips.

In his career, Trey Burke has made countless plays that left me a grinning, blithering heap on the floor, wondering how one man could do all the things that he does with a basketball, and do them so effortlessly. He has also missed the same shot that now stands as his moment in time. It has rimmed out, almost fallen, and banged wildly off iron to the floor. He has missed free throws to clinch games and looked on helplessly as the other team celebrated its own moment that defied explanation. Trey Burke is not clutch. Nobody is. Fate is just you grasping for answers. What he has, what has given him his unwavering confidence through the years, what has turned him from a three-star into an all-everything face of college basketball, is an unrelenting desire to win, and the wherewithal to bust his ass to get there. He doesn’t want it more for 40 minutes between tipoff and the final buzzer. He wants it more when the game is over. He wants it more before breakfast and after practice when its time to go home, but he still shoots the ball for hours. It's why there are videos of him running stairs and shooting jumpers in the summer, executing the same moves over and over in painstaking fashion that you later see at high speed on highlight reels. Practice. Hours and weeks and years of it. Building the foundation for what is to come. (link). And its why after a breakout freshman year he went to every camp he could, determined to get better even as everyone looked at him in awe. That’s how you get good enough to make the right play at the right time. Or in the case of Michigan-Kansas, 10 minute’s worth of plays.

After Elijah Johnson tried to sink the Dagger in Michigan’s season and Trey Burke’s career, Burke responded with this: he scored 10 points before overtime and the first five points of the extra session, he dished out a number of beautiful assists, pressured Johnson into a 10-second violation, and helped force the errant pass that Robinson turned into a dunk on the other end. With 2:53 left in the game and Michigan down 10 points, he did what he has done his whole career: he picked up his teammates and made sure they won the damn game. He also scored eight of those points himself and assisted on two more, because he is Trey Burke and that’s what he does. He’s worked too hard not to do it.

“The moment it left my hand, I knew it was good.”

After a missed Elijah Johnson free throw, as the clock wound down with Michigan behind three, he took the ball in his hands, moved it up the court then across to his left, and took the same shot he’s been taking his whole career. The one he shoots hundreds of times in practice. The one he shot as a high school kid trying not to be outshone by his better-known teammates. The shot he missed against Arkansas and against Ohio State. The one he practices for hours so he’ll never miss it again.

And he did it all with the same stone-cold expression he has always had. He’s never done it any other way.

“The moment it left my hand, I knew it was good.”

Of course he did.

After Elijah Johnson’s shot slipped through the net, Trey Burke took the game over as completely and totally as I have ever seen a Michigan player do with my own eyes, and he delivered me a memory that doesn’t have to be recounted to me years later or witnessed on an old highlight reel. It was a miracle comeback. His own moment in history. I’ll never forget it. He’ll never forget it either.

After it was all over and his teammates swamped him at midcourt, he yelled in celebration. Then it was on to the next one.

Michigan went on to beat Florida by 20 points en route to its first Final Four since the Fab Five. Michigan then survived its semifinal game vs. Syracuse largely in spite of Burke, whose game wasn’t built for the suffocating zone that Jim Boeheim has perfected. During the week following the Kansas game, Burke collected just about every postseason award, accolade, and trophy out there. Everyone else had finally caught on after all these years.

Photo credit: USA Today Sports Images

In the end it wouldn’t be enough. Michigan would fall to the overall No. 1 seed Louisville in an all-time classic title game. Burke’s effort on the night — 24 points after spending 14 minutes on the bench in the first half — came up short as the young Wolverines ultimately failed to keep pace with a devastating Cardinals' offense over the last 23 minutes of game time. A somber cap on an otherwise transcendent season that redefined what Michigan basketball can be in the future. A future that has not looked this bright since before I can remember.

Despite the sour ending, it still feels wonderful and all of it will stick with me until I'm old, telling my own memories to kids and grandkids eager to listen. Trey Burke’s college career, should it end after just two years, will forever stand out. Defined by the perfect moment, when the best player I’ve ever watched in maize and blue pulled The Dagger out of Michigan’s still-beating heart, wiped off the blood, and used it to carve his name into history.

In that moment, he stood for an instant at the top of the hill. Sisyphus’ boulder in his hand, no larger now than the basketball he used to steal from kids when he was still just five years old.

Trey Burke, once a legend only to himself, had left no doubt.

Design/Layout: Josh Laincz | Producer: Chris Mottram | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler

About the Author

Headshot2

Zach Travis is a University of Michigan graduate and a life-long Wolverine fan that still kicks himself for not rushing the field when the Wolverines beat OSU in 2003. He grew up in Michigan, now lives in Virginia, and writes about Michigan sports daily at Maize n Brew and in a weekly column for the Detroit Free Press. Follow him on twitter at @zach_travis.

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