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Career Retrospective: Trey Burke

Saying goodbye to Trey Burke, one of the best ever to play basketball for the University of Michigan.


1. The narrative of Trey Burke’s career should be quite clear by now – it’s almost a cliché, but Trey embodies that "three-star underdog" archetype and pretty much maxed it out; in high school, he was snubbed by his childhood favorite and hometown Ohio State Buckeyes, didn’t receive much attention from high-level basketball programs, but seized the empty starting spot here in Ann Arbor as a freshman and had pretty much the most accomplished career that he could have even hoped to have.

2. Once Darius Morris declared for the NBA Draft after Michigan’s memorable run into March Madness in 2011, there was ample opportunity for Burke. Michigan was to return every single player from that incredibly young and overachieving squad, but Morris – who was the best, and easily the most important player on that team – left, so the biggest question was the point guard spot. An underrated discussion of Michigan’s hoops renaissance is that John Beilein overhauled the offense, often eschewing his traditional motion offense for a pick-and-roll scheme. That paid immediate dividends with Morris, who, despite being unable to hit outside shots, thrived as the offensive lynchpin, creating shots with his flashy passing and ability to find opportunities at the rim. Michigan’s offense still contained a lot of motion sets and it still prized three point opportunities, yet it was a significant scheme change. Because of Darius’s departure, Michigan found itself to be very young – still – and missing its top scorer and only creative catalyst on offense.

Burke almost completely mitigated Tim Hardaway, Jr.’s sophomore malaise, managed to seamlessly replicate everything Darius Morris did (and then some), and put in some absolutely stellar performances against top-tier opponents in very big games.

3. From day one, Trey was an incredibly impressive player. As a freshman, he took over a team that returned every other piece from a decent NCAA Tournament squad and immediately became Michigan’s best player. Burke almost completely mitigated Tim Hardaway, Jr.’s sophomore malaise, managed to seamlessly replicate everything Darius Morris did (and then some), and put in some absolutely stellar performances against top-tier opponents in very big games – 17 points and 9 assists against Duke in Maui, 20 points on 8-11 shooting in a home win against Michigan State, 17 and 5, including two critical shots late against Ohio State and Jared Sullinger at home, 30 points in the Big Ten Tournament against Minnesota, the list goes on. Individually, he split the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award with Cody Zeller, was named second-team All-Conference, was named as a second-team All-American by CBS, and on a team level, he helped carry Michigan to a share of its first Big Ten championship since 1986.

4. Even though Michigan was upset by Ohio early in the NCAA Tournament, it was still the Wolverines’ second consecutive season that couldn’t really be considered anything but positive. In the two seasons since Beilein cleaned house and replaced all of his assistant coaches, Michigan had made it back into the tournament and then won a share of the Big Ten – easily the toughest conference in the country – the next year. That loss to Ohio halted a lot of the program’s momentum and underscored how far Michigan still had to go (even though upsets, particularly to teams in good form with favorable matchups, do happen, and overly influence the perception of a 30+ game season). Once Burke seemingly changed his mind and surprised nearly everyone by putting off the NBA Draft for another year and after Michigan brought in a stellar recruiting class headlined by two five-stars, the team garnered a lot of hype entering the season.

5. There’s a lot to be said about this past season – Michigan was once again a high-flying and actually fun basketball team, the squad looked dominant against a rather mediocre non-conference slate, had a somewhat disappointing Big Ten campaign (even though the narrative would be completely different had Jordan Morgan’s last-second tip in against Indiana gone in), but the thrilling jaunt through the NCAA Tournament and to the brink of a national championship will be the enduring story. So much credit simply has to go to Trey Burke; he improved from a very good player as a freshman to the best player in the country as a sophomore and masterfully led an inexperienced rotation to the most team success that Michigan had in at least two decades. There really aren’t enough superlatives and it’s near-impossible not to gush about how great of a player Trey Burke was for that sophomore year. Had he pulled the trigger and entered the NBA Draft after one year, there’s no chance that Michigan would have been able to come close to what it was last year. Trey's extra year cemented him as one of the best players ever to don a Michigan uniform.

6. The aforementioned switch to a pick-and-roll-based offense was tailor-made for Burke – for the last three years now, Michigan has been able to run a good portion of their offense through their best player, allowing him to try to score off of the screen or set up a teammate when the defense collapses. Trey was excellent, particularly as a sophomore, and his pick-and-roll mastery was the core of his game. He used the screens well, but once he gained that little bit of separation, it was over; if the defender went under the screen, Trey was accurate enough to hit a long pull-up jumper and if they managed to fight through it, he was usually able to seal them off with his body, use an array of prodding drives to the basket, and generate a shot for himself or someone else. For a smaller guard, he got to the basket quite well, finished decently enough and he was able to hit a variety of shots – teardrops, runners, pull-ups, and step-backs – from short- to mid-range. Off of the drive, Trey was a terrific passer: he learned how to use his big on the pick-and-roll and fed Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary through tight windows for easy baskets, plus he always had an eye on shooters posting up in the corners if help arrived from there (which they often did, with how good of a scorer Trey was). In the half-court, Burke made Michigan’s offense work – three of the five starters (Morgan/McGary, Nik Stauskas, and Glenn Robinson III) couldn't create much for themselves and Tim Hardaway was never really a great pull-up shooter and couldn't take the ball to the basket in the half-court particularly well. So Trey bore the weight of being the team’s primary scorer and being the catalyst for most other offensive opportunities – and Michigan had the best offense in the country, per Kenpom.

7. Michigan’s transition offense was also a huge part of last year’s success on that end – even off of long defensive rebounds, the Wolverines liked to run and did it well. Robinson and Hardaway were high-flying finishers at the rim in transition, and after Michigan went through a pretty comical stretch of learning how to throw alley-oops, Burke was setting up those two with regularity. Trey almost always made good decisions on the break, often showcased his repertoire of devastating hesitations, ball-fakes, spin moves, and other maneuvers that usually dusted would-be defenders, and was even able to play off the ball well when Hardaway was leading it. And of course, Burke had that pickpocket’s knack for strip steals and easy dunks on the other end (including what would be his second-most iconic play against Keith Appling and Michigan State). It was a common occurrence for Michigan to have scoring bursts characteristic of elite offenses; someone could get hot, the team could get a couple of easy buckets in transition, the opposing offense could get bogged down, and the Wolverines would outscore the other team by double digits within the span of time between two TV timeouts. Those sequences of general offensive dominance were often – almost always, really – keyed by Trey, and were ultimately the aspect that pushed Michigan’s offense into "elite" territory.

8. Trey Burke also had a remarkable flair for huge plays in close and important games – a player can’t win a bevy of national player of the year awards without a few indelible memories. Of course the Kansas game – it had everything: two elite teams (or close to it), a quite improbable comeback, an unbelievable buzzer beater to send the game to overtime, and a last-second miss that would have won the game. Trey was at the middle of it all – he finished with 23 points (all in the second half or in overtime) and 10 assists, and he spearheaded Michigan’s comeback effort, down double-digits with less than three minutes left. With the Wolverines down 72-62 with 2:22 left, Glenn Robinson triggered the run with a steal and a coast-to-coast dunk. Kansas inbounded the ball and Trey smartly harassed an unaware Elijah Johnson to the point of a ten-second violation and a turnover, and then followed it with a nice wraparound assist on an easy layup for Mitch McGary. After a Kansas basket to widen the deficit back to eight, Burke found himself guarded by Jeff Withey on a switch and coolly nailed a long step-back three pointer to cut the Jayhawk lead to five. With about thirty seconds left, Robinson managed to corral a loose ball after a missed Hardaway jumper and made an impressive reverse layup over Withey. Up three, Elijah Johnson bricked the front-end of a one-and-one and then –


(via the indispensable UMHoops)

10. Had Trey missed that shot, Michigan would have lost the game and the season would have ended. "Clutch" is a nebulous concept that seems to fly in the face of most statistics-based basketball analysis (and while "clutchness" is a debate for another day, it's hard to call a player clutch or unclutch based off of small sample sizes; after all, Trey missed a handful of very similar shots late in games by this much earlier in his career), but that was a shot that was sorely needed and Trey hit an absolutely unbelievable shot. Had Michigan lost that game, the season would have felt like it was a letdown from all of the hype from the preseason until February, and with Burke and Hardaway likely gone, the Wolverines would have lost a ton of momentum from that impressive '13 squad. If Trey misses there, Michigan loses, and that Final Four berth (which carries a ton of weight prestige-wise in college basketball) never happens. It's impossible not to overstate the importance of that shot and Trey's overtime -- which was stellar also, particularly a long three off of a screen and a long two in the face of Ben McLemore -- almost feels secondary. In that moment, Trey added yet another accomplishment to his prodigious career: hitting an impossible shot, one that saved Michigan's season for another few games, that will live on in the annals of March Madness highlight reels for a long time.

11. Trey Burke had a host of other tremendous performances in that sophomore campaign: 18 points and 11 assists in the ACC-B1G Challenge against NC State, 27 (on 12-16 shooting) and 8 against West Virginia in Brooklyn, a torrid start and eventually 23 points at Northwestern, an efficient 19 and 12 at home against Iowa, 18 and 9 in a big game on the road against Minnesota, 25 points in a loss on the road to Indiana, 16 and 8 including a key block late on Aaron Craft in a pivotal home win over Ohio State, 26 (8-11) and 8 against Illinois at home, 21 and 8 with the go-ahead strip-and-score against MSU in Ann Arbor, 26 and 7 on the road against Purdue in which Trey essentially carried Michigan to a win, and he even managed to fight through foul trouble to put up an efficient 24 points in a losing effort to Louisville in the national championship (with that unbelievable block on Peyton Siva that was called a foul). The list goes on.

12. So, now it's over. Burke finished out his career as the near-consensus national player of the year, was a first-team All-American, won Big Ten Player of the Year from the coaches and media, and so on and so forth. The only real discussion left to have about Trey will be in several years, once his NBA career is over, and it will be whether or not to raise a banner in Crisler next to those of Buntin, Hubbard, Rice, Tomjanovich, and Cazzie. He should, and will, get his jersey retired. With today's dynamic in college basketball -- players come and go really quickly if they play at a top level, and most elite players are only in for a one-year stopover -- it's not often that we get two years of a superstar, and Michigan fans should consider ourselves lucky to have gotten to watch Trey Burke for these past two years. Michigan's jump as a program over the last two seasons is no coincidence -- Burke deserves a ton of credit for helping reestablish Michigan Basketball and that will be a big part of his legacy. In the end though, that undersized three-star, the "Pride of Columbus, Ohio," was not only a crucial part in this renaissance of sorts, but one of Michigan's best ever, and should go down as such. He's the type of player that seems totally irreplaceable in the here and now, and I'm not quite sure that we'll ever have a point guard here at Michigan that was ever as good as Trey Burke was.