ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Whatever 2013 brings, it is clear that 2012 belonged to Trey Burke.
When the New Year dawned, there were still big question marks over Burke’s ability to lead the Wolverines in Big Ten play. After all, the conventional wisdom was that point guard was too important to leave to a freshman.
Twelve months later, the only question left about Burke is if he can get the Wolverines to a Final Four before his inevitable departure for the NBA.
Burke started the year with a 27-point performance on New Year’s Day, helping Michigan beat Minnesota, but his biggest play of the season might have been a jumper over former high-school teammate Jared Sullinger that helped Michigan upset No. 6 Ohio State.
That victory meant that the Wolverines finished the Big Ten season at 13-5, tied for first place with the Buckeyes and Michigan State. Burke did everything for Michigan, leading them in points, assists and even blocked shots.
That gave the Crisler Center a banner to raise in the fall, but the spring didn’t end quite as well as the Wolverines had hoped. Ohio State got its revenge by knocking Michigan out of the Big Ten tournament, and then came the fateful decision by the NCAA Tournament Committee.
As karmic retribution for John Beilein adopting Brady Hoke’s habit of calling the Buckeyes “Ohio”, Michigan was scheduled to play the real Ohio University in the first round. The Bobcats, irritated at being the punch line of Hoke and Beilein’s jabs at Ohio State, knocked out fourth-seeded Michigan 65-60 in Nashville.
After that came the news that Burke was considering entering the NBA draft after just one season. Beilein and his staff immediately began the hunt for a new point guard — welcome to Ann Arbor, Spike Albrecht — but Burke eventually decided to stay in Ann Arbor for another year.
It turned out to be a great idea. Teamed up with a more mature Tim Hardaway Jr., an improved Jordan Morgan and a half-dozen talented freshmen, Burke has led the Wolverines to a 12-0 start. That’s the second best in school history, and has the Wolverines at No. 2 in the country heading into conference play.
So what will 2013 bring? It’s hard to tell, because Michigan will be facing one of the toughest basketball conferences in recent memory. One rating gives the Big Ten six of the top 17 spots going into conference play, with Indiana and Ohio State joining the Wolverines in the top 10, and Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan State not far behind. Illinois and Iowa aren’t ranked as highly, but are a combined 23-3 in non-conference play, while Purdue, Northwestern, Penn State and Nebraska are expected to lag behind.
Since Beilein arrived at Michigan, his teams have been known for 3-point shooting, zone defense and not much of an inside game. This year, though, that has changed. The Wolverines can still shoot — they have one of the nation’s top-5 offensive ratings — but Morgan’s improvement and the arrival of freshman Mitch McGary has given them a post presence that hasn’t been seen at the Crisler Center in years. For once, Beilein has a team that can win games on the boards, even on a night where they aren’t shooting at their normal percentage.
This far, though, they haven’t had that poor shooting night. Hardaway and Burke give Michigan two experienced scoring options, Morgan and McGary are getting points inside, and other freshmen are already helping out offensively. Nik Stauskas has earned attention across the country — and his homeland of Canada — for his deadly 3-point shooting, while Glenn Robinson III, Albrecht and Caris LeVert are well ahead of schedule. Michigan has even been able to put five freshmen on the floor together — the first time that’s happened since the Fab Five rolled into town 20 years ago.
So Beilein has a team that can score and can rebound. They can also play defense. When they went to New York for the semifinals and finals of the Preseason NIT, they held Pittsburgh and Kansas State under one point per possession — the mark of a good defense — and did the same to West Virginia when they returned to the Big Apple to play at the new Barclays Center.
Michigan’s schedule has been as bad as people have tried to make it sound, either. Pittsburgh is 12-1, Kansas State just knocked off Florida and North Carolina State has wins over Connecticut and Stanford. Even Eastern Michigan, blown out of the Crisler Center last week, has a victory over Purdue.
So the last question for Michigan as they head into 2013 is how their talent will transfer to the road. While they’ve won three times in New York City, their only true road game of the preseason was an easy win at Bradley. Things will get much tougher in mid-January, when they play back-to-back games at Ohio State and Minnesota, and even harder in February when they play four Top-20 teams in 11 days, including three on the road.
As it did last year, Michigan will go as far as Burke can take them. This year, though, he has a lot more help.