You know a player is truly elite, is truly something special, when he deserves a nickname.

We’re in an era that is, compared to the past, simply embarrassing when it comes to dishing out nicknames. Maybe our generation of sportswriters just isn’t creative enough. Maybe players are now so reserved when dealing with the media that they don’t present a persona to the press that leads itself to an easy nickname.

In any case, these days, it’s pretty standard to just take someone’s full name and A-Rod or D-Mo it. (I refuse to legitimize the nickname “Butterfly” that some tried to force on former Michigan point guard Darius Morris.)

I bring this up because, after the way he played in Michigan’s 60-59 win over Michigan State on Tuesday night, Trey Burke officially needs a nickname.

I vote for “Trey the Truth,” though I worry that rapper Trae Tha Truth isn’t popular enough for it to catch on widely. But there’s plenty of time to figure out a better one later on, since it’s clear that the freshman point guard is going to be terrorizing defenses — whether in the Big Ten or in the NBA — for many years to come.

After leading all scorers with 20 points and keying the Wolverines to a huge win over the Spartans — their third straight in the in-state series, proving that the rivalry is, once again, a real rivalry — there’s no doubt left that Burke is the team’s best player.

Michigan coach John Beilein (as well as the media) was reticent for most of the season to go too far in anointing Burke. After all, despite earning the title of Ohio’s Mr. Basketball his senior year of high school, Burke was just an ordinary three-star recruit, maybe a four-star to some scouting services.

Burke really arrived at the Maui Invitational, immediately asserting himself in Michigan’s first game against Memphis. Playing in such a big-time atmosphere against so many teams, the Columbus native was unfazed. He even seemed to thrive in the limelight. That should have been the first clue as to Burke’s true potential — the great ones live for the big moments and rise to them, using those times to lift themselves to heights they couldn’t otherwise reach.

“I just felt like I had to make big plays,” Burke said after the Michigan State game. “Coach Beilein told me one of my jobs was to make big plays tonight, to get the team what we want every time down on offense. … I can’t say I was the best player out there. There were just times out there I had to make a big play for my team.”

Maybe Burke can’t say that he was the best player out there, but I’ll say it for him. And those big moments are the reason why. All night he was responsible for the most important momentum plays for Michigan.

There was his and-one layup, followed by his trap of Michigan State guard Travis Trice, which forced Trice to burn a timeout with 9:34 left in the first half. The Spartans cut into the Wolverines’ lead later in the frame, and Burke responded by stealing the ball in the backcourt and scoring over Draymond Green. His play gave Michigan its first double-digit lead of the night, and it was the loudest Crisler Center has been in my two years covering the team (though not as loud as when the final horn sounded.)

Burke saved his best for when the Wolverines needed it the most, scoring when Michigan State stole the lead and the momentum, and when he was no doubt the most tired. With Michigan down three points with 5:29 left in the game, Burke calmly launched a 3-pointer from NBA range to tie it back up. A minute later, down four points, he attacked the rim and hit a foul shot to cut the deficit once more.

And somehow, some way, Burke avoided getting swallowed by Green and two other players in transition with 35 seconds left, deftly weaving and flipping the ball to senior guard Stu Douglass for the winning basket.

He was the only player doing anything for Michigan on offense in those instances and in other long stretches against the tenacious Spartan defense.

“That kid walks the walk, so he can talk the talk,” said senior guard Zack Novak. “I’ve told him, whatever he says, I’ll back him 100 percent.”

How funny it now seems that Wolverine fans were worried about how the team would be able to replace Morris. Obviously, you’d want both players on your squad, but there’s no doubt that, if forced to pick, you’d go with Burke — even the freshman version — every time. And in a situation like the NCAA Tournament game against Duke, who would you rather have taking a last shot? Morris, who could never figure out how to shoot consistenly? Or Burke, who can hit any sort of jumper that he damn well pleases?

Perhaps Burke will break down soon, will hit the proverbial freshman wall. It’s a valid concern, considering he averages 34.5 minutes a game, the highest on the team. But I’m not worried about it. He just seems to have that extra something that will keep that from happening. He’s not like most other players in that regard, like Spartan guard Keith Appling, who coach Tom Izzo said was too fatigued at the end of the game. (Appling, a sophomore, only played 31 minutes.)

This isn’t a slight to Tim Hardaway Jr. or any other Michigan player, but rather a statement about Burke’s ability. He’ll be the engine that drives the Wolverines for as long as he’s around Ann Arbor.

After the game, I asked Beilein where his team would have been without Burke on Tuesday night.

“Don’t want to even think about that,” he said.

No need to. Burke is there, and Michigan need only be thankful for that. Someone get this guy a nickname.

Fellow Ohio native Estes is taller than Burke, but isn’t quite as good at basketball. He can be reached at or on Twitter @benestes91.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.