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Luke Pasch: Fear the freshman

Todd Needle/Daily
Michigan coach John Beilein could unleash true freshman point guard Trey Burke on the Big Ten this season, or he could play senior guard Stu Douglass at the position. Buy this photo

BY LUKE PASCH
Daily Sports Editor
Published October 30, 2011

I distinctly remember when I realized Michigan was getting something special in freshman point guard Trey Burke.

It was March, and my buddies and I were pre-gaming — er, preparing — to go out on a Friday night. I was DJ-ing on my friend’s Macbook, and after choosing a jam, I remembered that Burke’s highlights from his senior season at Northland High School in Columbus had been posted online earlier that day. So, with the bass still thumping, I opened YouTube and cued up the video.

For two minutes, I watched Burke put on a clinic. He drains contested threes and scores in the lane over defenders eight inches taller than him. And as elusive as he is with the ball in his hands, he still knows when to dish to an open teammate. It’s all very impressive. But I was just about ready to dismiss it as another recruiting video that strategically highlights a player’s strengths and never his flaws.

Then, the final clip floored me.

A defender picks up Burke at half court, where he dribbles left to right. Trying to beat the press, Burke turns on the jets, but his opponent sticks with him nicely. Then, in a maneuver I wasn’t aware was physically possible without shredding an MCL, Burke plants his right foot and stops on a dime. His defender, meanwhile, hits the deck — he wanted to stop with Burke, but his ankles gave out instead.

As Burke calmly pulls up to bury a 3-pointer at the buzzer, my friends and I exploded in our best impressions of those And1 Mixtape audiences from back in the day (OHHHHHH HOW DID HE — THAT WAS COLD-BLOODED).

Seriously. Go watch the video. The clip comes at 2:27.

Bottom line: this kid can ball. Inexperience aside, it's fair to label Burke the most athletic player on the Wolverines’ roster — he may very well be the best athlete Michigan coach John Beilein has ever recruited. And whatever he lacks in height, he makes up for with quickness and agility.

Ignore the coach-speak. Beilein says he won’t name Darius Morris’s replacement at point guard until after the exhibition matchup with Wayne State on Friday. He claims that senior co-captain Stu Douglass is having the best fall practices of his career, and Burke’s freshman cohort Carlton Brundidge knows how to score the basketball very well.

Granted, he’s probably not lying. Douglass and Brundidge are solid guards that fit Beilein’s offense beautifully. But Douglass is a combo guard who’s best suited as a shooter off the bench, and Brundidge is a tad behind Burke in his development and would benefit tremendously from a redshirt year, or at least a year with limited minutes.

I sat down with Beilein last Thursday at Big Ten Media Day and busted his chops one last time before leaving the ballroom. I told him I knew he's just hiding his cards from his conference counterparts — that everyone believes Burke is getting the nod. He chuckled and reminded me that when he was coaching his own son at West Virginia, Patrick Beilein only had two career starts.

Good point. Kind of. I guess he was illustrating that he doesn't always do what people expect. But I don't buy it.

Upperclassmen at Michigan understand the pains of having a freshman trying to run Beilein’s intricate offense. We watched Morris’s futile attempts a couple years ago. It was ugly. His whole season was a disappointment. And until he blossomed in his sophomore season, we were all ready to dismiss Morris as a lost cause.

So why make the same mistake with Burke?

Because in some ways, Burke provides an offensive attack that Morris never could. The kid shot 3-pointers at a 47-percent clip (!) in his senior season. Morris knocked down just 25 percent of his triples last year, and that was always considered his weakness.

Opponents tell you the hardest part of defending Beilein’s offense is that he spreads the floor incredibly well. His guards can shoot from the perimeter, which consistently keeps defenders honest and out of the paint.

But when Morris ran the point, defenses were able to sag off of him and clog the lane because they knew he wasn’t going to pull up to shoot.

Big Ten coaches are terrified at the prospect of Beilein having a natural shooter at the top of the key. His starting five — or at least what I believe his starting five will be — will consist of four deadly shooters. Burke will bring the ball up and see Zack Novak (42 percent from 3-point range in conference play last season), Tim Hardaway Jr. (44 percent), Evan Smotrycz (36 percent) and center Jordan Morgan.

And those guys aren’t just shooting specialists. They all know how to get to the hoop when the situation calls for it.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery is particularly frightened.

“The interesting thing for me is the seeming obsession with Morris’s departure,” McCaffery said Thursday. “That’s one guy. Hardaway is a pro, Morgan is a beast and they’ve got like 100 guys that could shoot threes and spread you out.

“And you’ve got a great point guard, who may actually — I don’t want to say he’s better (than Morris) yet, but he definitely shoots it better.”

Beilein — you’re not fooling anyone. Burke’s a youngster, and we’ll all have to get over the inevitable growing pains that come with having a freshman floor general in the Big Ten.

But Burke is your guy. And your opponents are afraid — very, very afraid.

Pasch will be quite embarrassed if Burke is not named the starting point guard. He can be reached at LPasch@umich.edu or on Twitter @LucasPasch