When all else fails, trust Trey Burke.
Every other Michigan starter has taken it upon himself, at one inopportune time or another, to take an offensive nosedive: Nik Stauskas had zero points against Ohio State; Glenn Robinson III had two against Michigan State, then again against Indiana; Tim Hardaway Jr. had two against Michigan State; and the bigs, well, the bigs barely tip the scales on offense.
But the unflinching, unfaltering Burke hasn’t failed. It’s just not in his repertoire, I suppose.
Michigan survived a scare against Penn State on Sunday, thanks in large part to a season-high 29 points from Burke. Burke, Robinson and Stauskas combined for 68 of the Wolverines’ 79 points. The three big men — Jordan Morgan, Jon Horford and Mitch McGary — shot a combined 0-for-5 for zero points.
Remember, that came against the unquestioned worst team in the Big Ten — winless-in-the-conference, winless-in-the-new-year Penn State.
That’s not how that Michigan gameplan was written up; Michigan was supposed to mop the Crisler Center floor with the Nittany Lions. But Burke had to bail Michigan out from a monumental upset. Somehow, despite the embarrassment of riches surrounding him, that’s still Burke’s job.
Burke is the king of the court at Crisler, and it’s scary to think where this team would be without him.
Trey Burke was packed and out the door. He was done.
On Thursday, April 4 last spring, Burke was headed home for Easter weekend, and he didn’t plan on coming back. He cleaned his dorm room, said goodbye to roommate Max Bielfeldt and walked out to the curb outside West Quad.
“When I stepped in the car, I was leaning gone,” Burke told ESPN. “I was leaning toward leaving.”
But then, with both feet out the door, a conversation with his parents on the three-hour drive to Columbus changed everything. Burke decided to return for his sophomore season at Michigan, turning down the fame and fortune of the NBA for one more year.
His decision changed the entire complexion of this Michigan team. He returned as the capstone of Michigan coach John Beilein’s emerging program, a program that badly needed a floor general after losing star guard Darius Morris to the NBA Draft a year earlier.
It’s hard to assess where this team would be without Burke. Top 10? Top 20? Maybe. You’d like to think so, but it’s no guarantee the Wolverines would even be ranked if they were starting a true freshman or a little-used veteran at point guard. Burke’s poise and big-game experience would be gone. The transition offense would be stalled and forgotten. The 3-point machine that was Michigan basketball under Beilein would still be installed out of necessity.
Fortunately, Burke is here, and the hypothetical nightmares are simply that — unreality.
Michigan invited any and all past kings of the court back to Crisler for the weekend: from Cazzie Russell to Phil Hubbard, Glen Rice, Zack Novak and even Darius Morris.
As much as they gawked at the new arena, many of the former players came for the coronation. They came to get an in-person look at the kid in the white No. 3 jersey emblazoned with a now-familiar name: Burke.
The expectations were far different for Burke this second time around. As a freshman, Burke was a national surprise, an under-the-radar recruit that switched his commitment from Penn State to Michigan and caught fire. He returned as a fixture on everyone’s radar. He returned this fall to the center of the college basketball universe, a preseason All-American at the helm of one of the most-hyped teams in the country.
And he’ll admit that, somehow, somewhere along the line, his focus shifted away from his future, away from himself and back to the team.
“Last year, I was kind of seeking (the NBA dream),” Burke told ESPN. “This year it is more coming my way. It’s more (that) I’m able to focus more on Michigan basketball and staying in the moment. I was more immature last year.”
From year one to year two, he didn’t change, though. Despite being a household name, Burke hasn’t looked to prove himself a scorer, he’s looked to create. And he learned true consistency, even in the eye of the Big Ten hurricane. And that mindset has him rocketing upward in both the scoring and assists categories in the Michigan record books.
But while having one consistent player might be enough against Penn State, it isn’t against Michigan State and Ohio State and Indiana. That takes four or five serious contributors, with no major lapses or collapses. The Michigan coaching staff is grooming its freshmen to be everyday-consistent players like Burke, but it’s not a quick journey. And it very well might not happen quickly enough to salvage the Wolverines’ quest for a Big Ten title.
In front of Morris and other former Michigan greats on Saturday, Burke proved his mettle once again against Penn State, scoring 29 points — his highest 40-minute total at Michigan — five assists and zero turnovers. It was his fourth turnover-less game of the season, a pleasant stat to go with his 3.7 assist-to-turnover ratio. He is the only member of the Michigan roster that has scored in double figures every game this season.
That’s consistency. That’s a guy you can trust. If he needs to score, he’ll score. If he needs to pass, he’ll pass. If he needs to lead, he’ll lead. He’s the king of Crisler, but even the king can’t do it alone.
— Nesbitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.