Yesterday Dave and I talked about the article he was planning on writing about the toll that Burke's departure could take on Michigan's program. Dave was frustrated with the idea that for the third straight year Michigan could lose a player deemed "key" to the upcoming season, and that coach Beilein is caught between a rock and a hard place: his teams are good enough to be fringe competitors and develop potential pro players, but not good enough to reload with the kind of players capable of sustaining high level success on a year in and year out basis.
It is a frustration that we all share to some degree. Watching Burke turn in the season that he did it wasn't easy to block out memories of Darius Morris doing much of the same, and the thought of having both of them back this year was just too tantalizing.
However, the other side of the coin has to be examined. I mean, taking fringe top-100 guys and turning them into potential draft picks isn't all bad, right?
Manny Harris was a high four star commit that came aboard to play for Tommy Amaker but got the old bait-and-switch when John Beilein was hired to take over the head coaching job at Michigan. Harris never really meshed with Beilein, spending time under suspension or nailed to the bench in overtime --- both incidents indicitive of the discord between the two.
However, Harris was quite the force for Michigan. Over his three year career he averaged 17.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, and 3.7 apg, and his junior year was his best yet with averages of 18.1/6.0/4.1 on 42/30/80 shooting. Despite being a very productive college player and a consensus second round-ish draft prospect, Harris declared after his junior year and went undrafted . Whether his departure had to do with close friend DeShawn Sims graduating, or the Wolverines underachieving in 2010 (just 15-17 despite a preseason top-15 ranking) is unclear, but Michigan was forced to charge ahead after losing its top two contributors.
The next season it would be Darius Morris' time to shine. The borderline top-100 recruit (77th to Rivals, 100th to ESPN, three-star to Scout) spent his freshman year toiling away as a streaky rotation player. His first year on campus Morris averaged 4.4 ppg and 2.6 apg while turning the ball over 1.6 times per game. As a sophomore, Morris hit his stride and turned into a third-team all Big Ten player, the conference's assist leader, and Michigan's single season assist record holder.
Morris' second season on campus saw his statline nearly triple across the board. He averaged 15.0 ppg, 6.7 apg, and 4.0 rpg while shooting 48.9% from the field and 71.5% from the line. Even more important than that was the affect he was able to have on his teammates. Undersized RS-Fr Jordan Morgan thrived off the pick and roll game with Morris, averaging nearly 10 points per game, and Michigan, a team starting Zack Novak at PF and featuring the lithe freshman Evan Smotrycz as the tallest rotation player on the team was able to sweep the series against Michigan State, win 21 games, and come one rimmed-out runner away from taking Duke to overtime for a chance at the Sweet Sixteen.
Soon after the season Morris declared for the draft where he was taken in the second round.
His replacement at point guard, a brash, diminuative kid from Columbus, OH, started turning heads almost as soon as he stepped foot on campus. He wasn't a highly sought after recruit --- he had been a Penn State commit before switching to Michigan --- but he was a former state champion and Ohio's Mr. Basketball. The recruiting sites were lukewarm: Scout counted him as a four-star prospect and ESPN ranked him the 84th best player in the nation, but Rivals had him 142nd. Still, off season reports swirled that Michigan had found a suitable replacement a the point. Nobody expected just how easily Burke would take over.
For the season Burke averaged 14.8 ppg, 4.6 apg, and 3.5 rpg on shooting percentages of 43/34/74. What's more, Burke did all of this while Tim Hardaway --- the teams top returning player --- struggled through a long slump as a sophomore, and Evan Smotrycz struggled to find any offensive consistency in a slightly expanded role.
Michigan's season ended with a top-15 ranking, a co-Big Ten championship, 24 wins, and victories against Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Purdue. Burke, for his trouble, was rewarded with co-Freshman of the year (split with Cody Zeller of Indiana), second-team All-Big Ten, and second-team All-American (CBS).
Now, Burke is weighing his draft prospects and possibly becoming the third player to leave Michigan in as many years.
This is a frustrating thing to confront. It is easy to get caught up in the feeling that every time Michigan takes a step forward the rug gets pulled out from under the Wolverines and the team falls right back to that place on the line between Almost Back and Finally There.
But that overlooks the obvious positives that the program has going for it. Who would have thought that after Manny Harris left, Darius Morris would blossom into a physically dominating assist factory that would lead Michigan to within inches of a Sweet Sixteen birth? Then, who would have thought that the giant shoes that Morris left empty would be filled by the 5'11 kid from Columbus that most of the Big Ten overlooked?
Some programs have it easy. Talent is always going to flow to Kentucky, UNC, Duke, and the rest of the heavy hitters. In the Big Ten there will always be Michigan State and Ohio State pulling in four- and five-star players with ease. However, decrying the potential departure of Trey Burke as a step back for the program ignores the gigantic step forward that his freshman season represents. Michigan is once again producing players good enough to get a long look from the NBA.
If Burke decides to leave, and it would be hard to blame a kid who has dreamed his whole life about playing in the NBA for following his dreams, it won't be for lack of sound advice.
The road back to basketball relevancy isn't an easy one. There are no shortcuts, and part of the deal of becoming great is to weather the storm that comes along with being really good. The current college basketball climate is one where one-and-done players are a fact of life --- even for teams like Michigan State and Duke, which for many years did a good job of being four-year-programs.
Burke's departure would unquestionably be a blow to Michigan's basketball team, but for the program itself I just don't see it. This would be the second fringe top-100 player to develop and produce to the point where he is a legitimate NBA draft prospect in as many years. That kind of player development is a huge selling point down the road.
If Michigan wants to be nationally relevant in basketball again it has to be the type of program where kids know they can go to follow their NBA dreams. Morris and Burke have begun to show that. Next year's recruiting class seems poised to carry that torch, and early returns on some of the the 2013 class are positive.
Trey Burke entering the draft this year would be a step back in the short term, but we can't overlook the many positive steps this program has taken to get to where it stands right now. Putting a talented kid in the League is just one more positive on which the future of Michigan basketball is being built. Even if it hurts a little right now.