WEST LAFAYETTE — At the 11:09 mark of the second half of Wednesday’s game, Trey Burke had just five points. With his team down by 12 points on the road and no Michigan player acting like they wanted to erase the deficit, the sophomore guard made the game his to control.
Burke hit a 3-pointer, a jump shot and nailed two free throws, and all of a sudden the Michigan men’s basketball team was back in the game, down 55-50 with eight and a half minutes to go. Three minutes later, the sophomore had another seven-point run to put the fourth-ranked Wolverines back on top, and he finished with a team-high 26 points, 21 of which came in that last 11 minutes of the game.
The Wolverines’ court general completely took over the game. Burke showed the nation why he’s the best player in the country.
And he’s done this before.
You could see it in his poise against Indiana on Feb. 2. It was College GameDay in Bloomington and all the national media was tuned into the matchup. Michigan dug itself into a 15-point deficit in the first half, but Burke wasn’t fazed. The sophomore chipped away at the Hoosiers’ lead, narrowing it to four points with his last-second 3-pointer before half to silence Assembly Hall — he had no fear of the raucous crowd that night.
You could see it in his body language against Ohio State on Feb. 5, taking on Buckeye guard Aaron Craft one-on-one for basically all of overtime to get Michigan the win. Burke kept the intensity up the entire game, and you could see the emotion in his face as he blocked Craft with eight seconds left in overtime — he had pride, grit, drive.
And you could see it in his play Wednesday night as he dictated the offense and scored 14 of Michigan’s 19 points in its crucial seven-minute run that closed the Boilermakers’ nine-point lead for good.
“I’m so fortunate to be able to coach him,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Not just the points, not just the assists, (it’s) his attitude, his demeanor, his poise — something you rarely have. Only the best players have (it).”
Burke’s had all the intangibles all season — in tight games down the stretch, in close wins, even in blowout losses, Burke has made the game his to control. Those intangibles are what make Burke the best player in the country.
And for Burke, those intangibles are instinctual.
“I know my role is to make plays for this team,” Burke said. “My number-one role is to try to get everybody involved because hands down, we’re one of the best teams when everyone’s clicking. … (But) when there’s a time in the game when the offense is kind of stagnant, we’re down 11 or 12 points, coach comes to me and tells me to start making plays. He didn’t do it (Wednesday), but he’s done it before.
“I know when he wants me to try to make plays for this team and try to get us back into a good rhythm.”
Burke made those plays Wednesday night, and Burke has made those plays all season. Even in tough losses, the sophomore has made plays for the Wolverines. In addition to his ridiculous 19-point and 6.9-assists-per-game averages, the sophomore still averages 19 points per game in each of Michigan’s five losses.
You can make all the claims you want that Indiana’s Victor Oladipo has stepped up to score for the Hoosiers when Cody Zeller has slumped, or that Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk’s 18 points per game is the main reason the Bulldogs are the No. 1 team in the country right now.
Burke has not only the scoring ability of any Player of the Year candidate, but he has those intangibles — the poise, the leadership, the attitude.
Like Beilein said, it’s something only the best players have.
Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org