ARLINGTON, Texas — When Trey Burke hit one of the biggest shots in the NCAA Tournament on Friday night, it made headlines and highlight reels across the nation.
But it’s not exactly breaking news that the Michigan point guard has immense talent and star power.
What wasn’t so obvious, but was just as critical to the comeback win over Kansas, was Burke’s development as a leader.
Burke said developing that part of his overall game has been his biggest improvement as a sophomore.
“Last year I led by example and I wasn’t as vocal as I should have been,” Burke said. “The coaches would always tell me they wanted to hear my voice more.”
The Wolverines were listening to Burke in the first half against Kansas, despite their leader being held scoreless. Burke went from an 0-for-4 shooting performance in the first half to finishing with 23 points and 10 assists in the overtime win.
“Trey wasn’t struggling at all, to me, in the first half,” teammate Tim Hardaway, Jr. said. “He was doing what a point guard is supposed to do, and that’s get his teammates involved.
“In the second half he took over. And any true point guard would know about that. Get your teammates involved first and if you have an opening, then take your shot.”
Burke became the fifth player in NCAA Tournament history to have 20 points and 10 assists in a Sweet Sixteen game. The last to do it was his next opponent’s coach, Florida’s Billy Donovan, who pulled off the feat in 1987 for Providence.
Florida, one of the country’s top defensive squads, meets Michigan in Sunday’s Elite Eight contest at Cowboys Stadium.
Containing Burke, Donovan said, is a full day’s work.
“When you’re dealing with him, in my opinion, it is a long process,” Donovan said. “You can do a great job on him for 10 minutes, a great job on him for 25 minutes. He has got the ability just to explode at any point in time.
“He’s got that kind of ability where if you rest a little bit or think that he’s not going to do something, that’s exactly when he creates great plays for himself or his team.”
Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin will draw the main defensive assignment on Burke, but Donovan said it will take a team effort.
“If we don’t have enough help built in around Burke with him coming off screens, using screens, it makes it very, very difficult for any defensive player to handle a guy like that,” Donovan said.
Burke used a screen to hit a 3-pointer from extra-long range to tie the Kansas game and force overtime. It was the kind of game-breaking shot that usually rimmed out for Michigan this season — or was made by the other team.
“We had some games where we [would] lose at the buzzer,” Burke said. “Just those type of games where we felt like we should have won…It’s allowed us to come into this tournament with a chip on our shoulder and allowed us to have a lot of momentum.”
Michigan coach John Beilein knew from early on that Burke had the potential to perform on a big stage. Michigan reached the Sweet Sixteen this season for the first time since 1994.
“I just saw a leader from day one, a guy that was a real winner,” Beilein said. “We had no idea that his development would go this fast until we started working with him a few times and saw the passion of his workouts, the leadership he showed.”
Any concerns Beilein had about giving the reins to a freshman evaporated after playing in a tournament in Hawaii last season.
“For a coach to have a freshman point guard, it takes time to gain confidence in him,” Beilein said. “When we went to Maui, he had my confidence from then on out. He played great in one of the best tournaments in the world. And ever since then he just hasn’t stopped working.”
Burke said he got about 200 messages from well-wishers after leading the Wolverines to the dramatic win over Kansas.
“I had a lot of messages from people that said they thought we were going to lose, down 10 with two minutes left,” Burke said. “Most people would have turned the channel.”
Michigan stayed focused, even while trailing Kansas most of the game. It was an impressive display of determination for a team that starts three freshmen — Mitch McGary, Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson Jr. — and has a rotation of six freshmen and a sophomore.
“A lot of young teams would have gone away and started arguing with each other,” Burke said. “But after every dead ball we continued to huddle and tell each other what we needed to do on the next possession to inch back into the game.”
After getting a chance to see his big 3-point shot on tape, Burke said he was surprised how far it was.
“We got another chance to win, so I’m thankful for that shot,” Burke said. “But that’s in the past and we’ve got to get ready for Florida tomorrow.”