Burke hoping to finish stellar season with a title
ATLANTA -- A year ago at this time, when Trey Burke decided to come back to Michigan for his sophomore season, the star point guard immediately started talking about a national championship.
It was certainly a possibility -- Burke's return put the Wolverines near the top of the preseason rankings -- but expectations like that are still hard to live up to. That's why Michigan's run to the Final Four has been so rewarding.
"It was just a matter of putting all the pieces together -- everybody understanding their role," Burke said. "Now that we're here, it's definitely surreal. It feels really good to be here. We're having a lot of fun."
After considering a jump to the NBA, Burke has made the most of another season in college. On Thursday, he was named national player of the year by The Associated Press -- the first Michigan player to win that award since 1966. Now the focus turns to Saturday's national semifinal against Syracuse, when Burke will try to move the Wolverines to within one win of that NCAA title.
"My teammates and coaching staff, you know, they put me in this position," he said. "I wouldn't be able to receive those awards without them.
"It would be great to get a win on Saturday, to have the opportunity to play on Monday and cut down the nets would definitely be a great feeling."
When Burke first arrived at Michigan, he was immediately under pressure. Point guard Darius Morris had left after his sophomore season to go to the NBA, and Burke's performance as the replacement would go a long way toward determining if the Wolverines could take another step forward after reaching the NCAA tournament in 2011.
The result: a share of the 2012 Big Ten title -- the school's first in 26 years.
Burke averaged 14.8 points per game as a freshman, and his perimeter shooting made him a nice fit for Michigan's offense. One of the best compliments a point guard can receive is that he's an extension of his coach on the court. That was true right away.
"I think in the first couple months, he was reading me," Wolverines coach John Beilein said. "He was putting deposits in my trust bank more and more every time. That's really important. The more deposits he made, the more I knew I could trust him."
All that success made Burke a candidate to leave Michigan after only one season, but he decided to stay following what was admittedly a stressful decision-making process.
With a weight seemingly lifted from his shoulders, Burke returned this season looking a little stronger. His stats improved almost across the board -- from 14.8 points per game to 18.8, 5.1 assists to 7.7, 35 percent 3-point shooting to 38 percent.
Burke's contributions, of course, extend beyond numbers. Although he's only a sophomore, he's one of the leaders on a team that includes three freshman starters.
"I really grew up last year," Burke said. "I played with two great seniors in Zack Novak and Stu Douglass. I was able to learn from them, learn certain leadership skills. Coming in to this year, I tried to be more of the voice out there -- be the Zack Novak that this team needs. It is my job to stay poised."
The Wolverines would not be in the Final Four without major contributions from freshmen Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas and Mitch McGary. Those newcomers have looked comfortable this season, in part because of Burke.
"Being on the court with him, he sees a lot of things that other guards don't see and he knows when it's time to score or pass it and finds easy drop-offs," McGary said. "That's why I've been playing so well in the tournament. It is purely off his play."
At their best, the Wolverines have a balanced offense with several talented options, but when they're in a tight spot, they turn to Burke. His steal and dunk in the final minute helped Michigan to a win over Michigan State last month.
Then in the regional semifinals against Kansas, his long 3-pointer in the final seconds sent the game to overtime, and the Wolverines eventually won.
Burke added the Wooden Award to his 2013 haul Friday. The only other Michigan player to win AP national player of the year was Cazzie Russell. He went on to play more than a decade in the NBA, and Burke's future looks bright as well.
Beilein was asked Friday to compare Burke to NBA star Chris Paul, whose college career actually ended with a loss to Beilein's West Virginia team in the 2005 NCAA tournament. Paul and Burke are both 6 feet tall.
"There certainly are many similarities because he can hit the in-between jump shot, he's got a great pace to his game," Beilein said. "Chris Paul has worked so hard at his game, he's elevated, like we hope that Trey can one day."
Two more wins, and Burke would become one of the best embodiments of Bo Schembechler's old saying at Michigan: "Those who stay will be champions."
No matter what happens over the next few days, Burke's career with the Wolverines has already been a memorable one.
"As a team, we've had one goal all year, and that was to get to Atlanta and win the national championship," Burke said. "Now that we're here, we just have to make the most of our opportunity."
Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index
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