AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — After he got up off the floor and headed to the locker room, fans of the Michigan Wolverines worried that their season was over.
In the immediate aftermath of the fall, they were simply hoping Trey Burke was still breathing.
Burke had just gotten tangled up with teammate Jon Horford and fallen to the Palace floor with a sickening thud. The contact was bad enough that the South Dakota State trainer raced onto the floor because it looked like an emergency and his bench was closer than Michigan’s.
After what seemed like a long moment of stillness — it was probably no more than a millisecond — Burke began to roll around the floor in obvious pain. At that point, the crowd exhaled and went on to the next concern. He hadn’t knocked himself out, but how badly was he hurt?
On the bench, though, things went on as usual.
“That was a very bad moment for us, but once I saw he was moving, I went about my business of arguing with the officials,” said Michigan coach John Beilein, who only realized later that it had been Horford who had accidentally flipped Burke. “That kid is as tough as nails, so I figured he would be alright.”
Spike Albrecht, Burke’s backup, felt the same way.
“I didn’t see what happened. Someone said he hit his head prety hard, but he never stays down for long, so I wasn’t worried,” he said. “I was just thinking about what I was going to do when I got into the game.”
Burke finally got to his feet, and headed immediately for the locker room. Was he going for a concussion test? X-rays? No one knew.
There was 11:01 to play, and the Wolverines led 49-41. Beilein and his players swear that they weren’t worried, but they were the only ones. The fans were wondering what would happen without Burke — could Nate Wolters take advantage and get South Dakota State back into the game?
The mood didn’t improve when Brayden Carlson hit a layup to cut the margin to six. Suddenly, the tiny group of Jackrabbit fans were making all the noise in the building.
But Nik Stauskas made a 3-point play, Wolters missed and it was Albrecht grabbing the rebound. Tim Hardaway Jr. hit a jumper, and Michigan led by 11.
That’s when Burke jogged out of the tunnel.
Wolters missed again, the Jackrabbits committed a foul, and suddenly Burke was back in the game. The Wolverines had actually increased the lead in the 97 seconds he missed, and as soon as he got back onto the floor, he found Hardaway for a 3-pointer that made it 57-43.
Just that quickly, Wolverine Nation was happy again. Michigan cruised to a 71-56 victory, and it turned out that Burke had never hit his head at all.
“It was mostly my back and my elbow — it might have been a piece of my head,” he said after the game. “I’m fine. My elbow is a little sore and my tailbone is a little sore, but I’m OK.”
It says everything about Burke’s importance to the team that an absence of less than two minutes, on his worst shooting night in months, had people convinced that doom was imminent. When Burke left the game, he was 1 for 10 from the floor, but his passing and defense had continued to make him valuable. Listed at a generous 6-foot, he even finished with a game-high two blocked shots.
“It doesn’t matter when Trey has a bad shooting night, because he can do so many other things,” said Glenn Robinson III, who broke a two-month shooting slump to finish with 21 points. “He was finding me for open shots, and he was finding the other guys. He doesn’t have to be making shots for him to help us.”
So, in the short run, everything is how Michigan and its fans want it. The Wolverines have advanced to the weekend, and Burke will be ready to go against Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday (12:15 p.m. EDT tip-off).
But that just puts off the inevitable. At some point in the three weekends, Michigan’s run will come to an end, whether it is in Auburn Hills, Dallas or Atlanta. Then, no matter how it finishes, Burke is almost certainly headed to riches in the NBA.
That time, he won’t come back in 97 seconds. For better or worse, Michigan will have to find out how they will survive without him.