August 2, 2014

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The Final Four: Michigan’s Trey Burke grows as leader while proving his doubters wrong

Just three games into Trey Burke’s college career, Michigan coach John Beilein couldn’t help but think he might have a mess on his hands with a freshman starting point guard.

The Wolverines had the Maui Invitational on the horizon when they played Western Illinois in November 2011. Burke shot 3-of-8 for 14 points with three turnovers, and the Leathernecks’ fifth-year senior Ceola Clark III got the best of the rookie with 21 points, making half his shots and adding four assists.

“We’re flying out to Hawaii to play in the Maui Invitational,” Beilein said Friday. “I said, ‘This is going to be tough having a freshman point guard.’”

It didn’t take Burke long to prove Beilein — and much of the nation — wrong.

“We got to Maui, he’s one of the best players on the floor playing against Duke, UCLA and Memphis,” Beilein said. “I said, ‘Maybe it won’t be such a bad year after all.’”

Make that a couple of years.

One season later, Burke has won numerous player of the year awards – including the prestigious Wooden Award on Friday — and has guided the fourth-seeded Wolverines to Atlanta, where they will face fellow No. 4 seed Syracuse tonight in the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four.

Burke credits his under-the-radar recruiting experience and his trial-by-fire freshman season for taking him this far.

“I had to grow up quick,” he said. “It allows me to play with confidence.”

Burke inherited the point guard role out of necessity, not because it was his time. After Darius Morris left early for the pros, the Wolverines were left with no better option than to put the ball in Burke’s hands.

“Sometimes I would forget the plays,” Burke said. “Stu (Douglass) would come up to me and tell me what I was supposed to do on that play or what I was supposed to do on the next play. That was something I needed to go through my first year.”

It’s not the first time Burke has blossomed beyond expectations.

In Columbus, he was an AAU teammate of Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft and a high school teammate at Northland of Jared Sullinger, who played for the Buckeyes is now with the Celtics. But while they were recruited by some of the highest-profile programs in the country, Burke, Ohio’s Mr. Basketball in 2011, received little attention.

He initially committed to Penn State before his play persuaded Beilein to offer him a scholarship.

“(Sullinger) was the No. 1 player in the country at the time,” said Burke, who is listed at 6 feet. “It’s not hard to get overlooked when you’re playing with a guy like that. Size was the main issue. I wasn’t done growing yet.”

In more ways than one.

Burke’s ability to see the floor has become 20/20, while his defense has improved vastly. Few players in the country — if any — can distribute the ball and score the way he does, averaging 18.8 points, 6.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals.

Although he considered declaring for the NBA Draft after last season, Burke said he has not considered whether he will return for a junior season.

“I’m not even thinking about it right now,” he said.

It will be his duty at the Georgia Dome to figure out ways to solve Syracuse’s zone.

“We can’t really get too greedy,” he said. “We can’t fall in love with the 3-point line, start taking deep threes. We have to try to find different ways to attack the zone. Execution will be big.”

After what Burke has experienced at Michigan, don’t expect him to appear rattled on the big stage as the Wolverines play in their first Final Four since the Fab Five in 1992 and ’93.

“Here he is, this cagey sophomore, veteran sophomore,” Beilein said. “The whole year he has been just as calm and cool as if he was a fifth-year redshirt senior guard.”

TONIGHT

• WHO: Louisville vs. Wichita State
• TIME: 6:09
• WHO: Michigan vs. Syracuse
• TIME: 8:49
• WHERE: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
• TV/RADIO: Channel 19; WKRK 92.3-AM

THE TEAMS

Louisville Cardinals

• RECORD: 33-5
• CONFERENCE: Big East (14-4 — T1; won tournament)
• RANKING: 2nd AP and USA Today
• FINAL FOURS: 10
• TITLES: 2 (1980, ’86)

Wichita State Shockers

• RECORD: 30-8
• CONFERENCE: Missouri Valley (12-6 —2nd; runner-up tournament)
• RANKING: Not rated
• FINAL FOURS: 2
• TITLES: 0

Michigan Wolverines

• RECORD: 30-7
• CONFERENCE: Big Ten (12-6 — T4)
• RANKING: T10 AP; 11th USA Today
• FINAL FOURS: 5 (1992-93 vacated)
• TITLES: 1 (1989)

Syracuse Orange

• RECORD: 30-9
• CONFERENCE: Big East (11-7 — T5; runner-up tournament)
• RANKING: 16th AP; 18th USA Today
• FINAL FOURS: 5
• TITLES: 1 (2003)