Since the moment Trey Burke, an LSA sophomore, committed to playing one more season April 2012, the ensuing 12 months seemed to come out of a fairytale.
There was his sweep of the National Player of the Year awards, the program-record-tying 31 wins and the NCAA Final Four. It was easy to forget that on the opening page of this season, in an exhibition against Northern Michigan, Burke was sidelined by a suspension stemming from off-the-court behavior that remained undisclosed — at least until fellow teammates, coaches and Burke himself began talking in the lead up to the Final Four about how that incident shaped the sophomore’s magical season.
“It was something that definitely allowed me to grow up from,” Burke said. “Coach (John Beilein) held me accountable for my mistake and its something that I definitely — I won’t make again. It just allowed me to grow up.”
Burke not only grew into Michigan’s second-ever AP National Player of the Year winner — the first since 1966 — but into the team’s unquestioned vocal leader. Just a few months into the season, Beilein named him a team captain.
“Being that guy’s teammate is an honest-to-God blessing,” senior co-captain Josh Bartelstein said.
On college basketball’s biggest stage at the NCAA National Championship game, Burke scored the Wolverines’ first seven points en route to his 24-point performance, but it was a play on the defensive end — a seemingly-clean block, called for a foul, that could’ve sparked a miraculous comeback in the game’s final minutes — that will live on in infamy.
While his title-game heroics ultimately resulted in a loss, fans will never forget his game-tying 3-pointer in the final moments of regulation in a win over Kansas the weekend before.
The shot, which left Burke’s hands more than nine feet behind the 3-point line, was summed up best by Bartelstein, who called it “an iconic shot from an iconic player.”
Though Michigan fell short of its first title since 1989, Burke will forever be engrained in Wolverine basketball history. When the Wolverines were expected to be a fringe top-25 team before the start of last season after Darius Morris decided to forgo his final two years and depart for the NBA, Burke instead led Michigan to its first Big Ten Championship since 1985-86. This season, Burke averaged 18.6 points and 6.7 assists per game while playing in the one of the country’s strongest conferences in years.
The legacy that he left inside Crisler Center may turn into one of permanence. Almost immediately after announcing his plans to forgo his final two seasons at the University, talks swirled about retiring his number by raising the No. 3 to the rafters alongside the legendary Rudy Tomjanovich and College Basketball Hall of Famer Cazzie Russell — a move endorsed by Beilein.
If the school retires his number, Burke — who pledged to complete the remainder of the semester rather than jumping into draft preparation — hopes that when fans see his name in the rafters, they’ll remember more than just Burke the athlete.
“Just a guy that left it all out there on the court, 100-percent effort at all times. A guy that wanted to represent the University the right way not only on the court, but off the court,” he said.
On June 27, Burke will almost assuredly be a lottery draft pick, putting a cap on a storybook path that wound through Atlanta and will end with a multi-million dollar contract.
But after calling his life at the moment “surreal,” the All-American shifted his attention to the cynics — perhaps the same ones that said he’d never be a high-caliber, Division I athlete, or win at Michigan, or have a shot at being drafted.
“It’s a new level now,” Burke said of the NBA. “I’m no longer considered one of the best players in (my) league, so I have to work. That’s what pushes me.”
“A lot of people are doubting me now,” he said, pausing as he shook his head and cracked his boyish smile. “Just like they doubted me coming into Michigan. It’s just going to make me work harder to become the best player I can be.”
Here are the other Students of the Year.