By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Editor
Published November 21, 2011
LAHAINA, Hawaii — Memphis was a team that was supposed to give the No. 15 Michigan men's basketball team and its inexperienced freshman point guard Trey Burke all kinds of problems.
Instead, Burke spent the day whizzing through the humid Maui air — and the Tigers’ defense — to give the Wolverines an early statement victory, 73-61.
“I tell you, I know (Michigan) lost a really good player in Darius Morris, who is a pro, but they didn’t really have too much drop-off with Burke,” said Memphis coach Josh Pastner. “He’s really good, and he’s only a freshman. He’s a really good talent.”
Heading into the Maui Invitational, No. 8 Memphis (1-1) looked like it would be a nightmare matchup for Michigan’s offense. Burke was tasked with breaking the Tigers' athletic, pressure-oriented press defense. To revive the Wolverines' stagnant offense, he’d have to go one-on-one with Joe Jackson, one of the nation’s top point guards, and do it all on a nationally televised stage with a hostile, Memphis-dominated crowd breathing down his neck.
But Burke played beyond his years. Only once, late in the second half with the game already decided, did Burke have problems breaking the press, forcing Michigan (4-0) to call a timeout.
“The goal was to stay poised out there on the court,” Burke said. “We knew they were going to bring up their hardest punch, and we knew they had quick guards.
“So before the game, the game plan was basically for us as ball handlers to stay poised out there to keep the team under control, and we did a good job of that.”
The freshman matched a career high with 14 points, thanks to an impressive 6-for-10 shooting day. Though he had just four assists, his most impressive statistic was likely his turnover total — he had only three.
“I made sure I stayed under control,” Burke said. “With Joe Jackson pressuring me full court, I basically just had to take my time and get the offense into what we were running. We did a good job with executing on offense and crashing the board.”
Burke made his presence felt from the opening minute. Just 40 seconds into the game, he took the ball into the paint and created space with a ballerina-esque spin move, to give himself an open layup.
Memphis continued to chip away at the Wolverines, who were unable to pull away. With just over eight minutes remaining, Burke again created space in the lane with a spin move, collapsing the Tiger defense and leaving sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. wide open on a backdoor cut for a layup to put Michigan ahead by 12.
Minutes later, after a Memphis 3-pointer cut its deficit to nine, Burke drove through the lane, and reminiscent of his predecessor Morris, lofted in a floater in traffic before landing on his back.
Burke’s most influential play may have come in an unlikely situation: in the lane on the defensive end.
After Michigan fell behind, 31-27, with three minutes left in the first half, the Wolverines stormed back with a 10-0 run after five straight points from Burke. With just seconds remaining in the half, Jackson drove right at Burke, attempting a buzzer-beating layup to recapture the momentum entering the half.
But Burke was there, staying in front of Jackson, to swat away the layup and fire up the Wolverines' sidelines. As the teams made their way to the locker rooms, a scuffle ensued that originated when Memphis’s Will Barton shoved Michigan senior guard Zack Novak. Though no punches were thrown, center-court turned into the grounds for a shoving match, intensifying halftime.
Using their momentum, the Wolverines stormed out of the gate in the second half and never looked back.
Burke wasn’t the only inexperienced guard to give the Wolverines a spark. Seldom-used junior guard Eso Akunne played significant minutes, giving the Michigan backcourt a rest while providing steady defense.
Akunne didn’t waste his rare opportunity. Around the 12-minute mark in the second half, Akunne found himself wide open on the perimeter. Though he entered the game with 12 career points, his confidence didn’t waver as he drilled the 3-pointer — perhaps the dagger to any Memphis comeback.
“We stopped and embraced the moment,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “That young man has worked his tail off so hard all summer long. He's just worked hard. Rather than go right in the huddle, I told the assistant coaches, ‘Let's think about what happened.’ That young man has worked so hard, and now on a national stage he makes that jumpshot.”
The Michigan bench exploded and after Memphis called a timeout in an attempt to quell the Wolverines' momentum, Michigan’s players and coaches met Akunne in the middle of the floor to celebrate.
The celebration didn’t let up and when the game was over 12 minutes later, skeptics of Michigan and its youthful backcourt were quieted. And on a national stage, within a stone's throw of Maui's beautiful Pacific oceanside, Burke just said “Aloha” to a bright future.