- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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ATLANTA -- The evolution happened.
No one knows exactly when, but at some point last season and into the summer, the shift had gone to Trey Burke.
He would take over Michigan. The ball would be in his hands often. The shots would be dictated, in some respect, by him. He would create the break, find Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas on the wing, Glenn Robinson III in transition and Mitch McGary on a dump-down pass inside.
He would read the passing lanes to jump-start the defense, as he did in plucking two steals to seal a crucial victory over Michigan State.
Not every shot went down. He couldn't finish off Indiana by himself. He couldn't convert at Ohio State.
But he came up with the shot of the NCAA tournament so far: a step-back 3-pointer to send the regional semifinal game against Kansas into overtime, where Michigan eventually won.
The Wolverines are here in the Final Four, and will get a chance to play for the title for the first time since 1993 if they can beat Syracuse on Saturday night. The only way the Wolverines get past the Orange and their mesmerizing, suffocating zone is if Burke solves it.
Burke won three national player of the year awards Friday -- the Wooden, Associated Press and Oscar Robertson -- all because of his ability to elevate this team and take over games when it matters most.
The trust Burke has gained from Michigan coach John Beilein happened without much hesitation. Darius Morris' abrupt departure meant that Burke, then a freshman, had to play more than expected last season.
"I think in the first couple of months, he was reading me, he was putting deposits in my trust bank more and more every time," said Beilein. "That's really important. The more deposits he made, the more I knew I could trust him."
Beilein said Burke has done things that many before him hadn't.
"Now I've seen him do it in practice and I said then, 'I'm fine with that.' So there's been this mutual respect for each other and I mean it," Beilein said. "I've never had him one time show any frustration in practice with a coach. I've probably at times coached him in practice ways. At the same time, I've seen great growth by showing a lot of patience and trust."
That trust had to be there for his players. They had to defer. And they did.
"Last year, the ball was in his hands so much," Hardaway said of Burke. "He does a great job of pushing the ball. He does a great job of getting the ball to the outlets. He can push the break. He can push the tempo. It comes down to making big shots. We would prefer the ball in his hands."
Hardaway had no issue allowing Burke to take over the lead role. He had the name. But Burke had the better, all-around game.
Yet he didn't have any of the ego.
"That's the beauty of it," Stauskas said. "Trey is the most talented player in the country and he shows up and keeps working hard -- and at the end of the day, he just wants to win a national championship. He would take that over any award. We're happy for him, but we understand that there's another goal and he's really pushing us for it."
McGary has become a major piece for the Wolverines. He has made 33 of 45 field goals in the NCAA tournament. The freshman has shed weight, run the floor more effectively, worked on his shot (he apparently is nimble enough to be quite an accomplished unicyclist) and become a tough matchup for opposing teams.
But he said he wouldn't be where he is now if it weren't for Burke.
"He does it all for this team," McGary said. "He's such a good leader. He's a good friend off the court. He sees a lot of things guards don't see. He knows time and score. He knows when to pass it and find the easy drop-off passes. [My development] is based off his play and getting the easy drop-offs. All I have to do is put the ball in the basket. He's doing all the work, penetrating in the lane and kicking it to me."
Burke is averaging 20.2 points in the past 12 games, including 15.5 points and 7.8 assists in the four NCAA tournament games.
"He's very aggressive both offensively and defensively," Syracuse senior guard Brandon Triche said. "He's able to get to the basket, but he also makes his teammates better. The one thing we need to do is stop him from either scoring points or getting assists. When he's getting assists, his team is a whole lot better."
Burke credited his teammates for putting him in position to win the national awards. And that tag as the national player of the year carries with it a target.
"He's a great player and the player of the year is well deserved," Syracuse sophomore guard Michael Carter-Williams said. "I'm just looking forward to it. It's going to be a great challenge for me. There's no pressure on me. You know, he's got a lot of pressure on him to come off player of the year and hold up expectations and such. I have no pressure, so I'm just going out there, playing freely and enjoying myself."
Carter-Williams is right -- the onus on getting into the Orange zone will be on Burke. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said Michigan can get shots against the zone, but whether the Wolverines (30-7) make them is another question. Most teams have struggled against the zone, questioning their offensive sets deep into the possession, using most of the shot clock. Triche doesn't think that will happen with Michigan, since the Wolverines will want to push tempo and take shots more quickly.
Carter-Williams said he fully expects that, as always, the Orange (30-9) will be able to lock in on defense in those final 10-12 seconds when they know a team has to shoot.
"It will be very critical for us to take care of the ball," Burke said. "They excel in turnovers and are very good in transition, especially with their length. They may be able to get a steal, take two dribbles and it is either a layup or a dunk. It is my job to set the tone for the team, my job to make sure we are making the right pass. We just want to find ways to exploit the defense early on. I think we definitely will be able to."