A basketball player like Trey Burke comes around to a college basketball program about as often as guilt to a sociopath.
In this age where college hoopsters stay on campus long enough for a tall cup of coffee before turning pro, the opportunity to see a player of Burke’s caliber toil at the amateur level is even more diminished.
Burke, the Michigan guard with shoulders as broad as Chicago, has his team in the Final Four in Atlanta largely because he put the Wolverines on his back last Friday night against Kansas.
This kid is everyone’s Player of the Year for a reason.
The accolades keep coming for Burke—John Wooden Award, Oscar Robertson Award, Player of the Year Award, to name but a few. If there was a Heisman Trophy for basketball, Burke would have won that, too.
Alfonso Clark Burke III is his given name, which sounds more like an heir to a family fortune than an heir to a college basketball championship. But that’s exactly where Burke is positioned right now—on the verge of perhaps taking Michigan to its first national championship since 1989.
It’s fitting that Burke is called Trey because, against Kansas in the Sweet 16 game, that was the shot that plunged daggers into the Jayhawks’ hearts.
The NCAA tournament is annually dotted with upsets. High seeds typically get bounced out before their time. Every year, it seems, there’s a media darling—the so-called “Cinderella” team.
This year, it was Florida Gulf Coast, a basketball program that is literally a 21st century creation; FGCU didn’t even have a team less than 15 years ago.
FGCU made the Sweet 16 before being slapped back by Florida. More on the Gators in a little bit.
Yet, every year, there seems to be at least one No. 1 seed left standing at the Final Four. This year, that No. 1 seed is Louisville. Upsets are great and make for scintillating copy, but the Final Four rarely includes an interloper.
Michigan was a No. 4 seed when the tournament began.
That’s hardly Cinderella status. But with their rather uneven play in the second half of the Big Ten schedule, the Wolverines were one of those teams that wouldn’t have surprised you had they been upset early—nor is their presence in the Final Four a shocker.
It didn’t look good for Michigan in the late stages against Kansas. And I have just written one of the biggest understatements of the year.
Michigan was down by 14 points to an annual national title contender with about five minutes remaining in the game. Burke, the whirling dervish point guard, was struggling through a mediocre (at best) game. It was tempting to turn the channel, or turn the TV off altogether. But I decided against that and left the game on the big screen for kicks—and got caught up in a fit of nostalgia.
One of the loudest sporting events I ever attended occurred 29 years ago this month.
The Pistons were up against the New York Knicks in the fifth and deciding game of their first round playoff series in 1984. The game was a “home” game for the Pistons, but they didn’t play it in their home arena.
The Pontiac Silverdome was booked for something or another, so the Pistons, mere tenants, were evicted for arguably the most important game in franchise history at the time. They would have to face the Knicks and scoring-machine Bernard King at Joe Louis Arena in downtown Detroit.
The Pistons hadn’t made the playoffs in seven years at that point. They had been to the second round of the playoffs just twice since moving to Detroit from Fort Wayne in 1957.
With a win over the Knicks in Game 5, the Pistons would be off to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
The Pistons were down by double digits in the fourth quarter. I can see the floor spread over the JLA ice surface and hear the crowd even as I type this.
That’s when guard Isiah Thomas, another small player with broad shoulders, turned on the after burners. Thomas poured in 16 points in the final 92 seconds of regulation. Thomas did it from everywhere on the court and in every way imaginable.
Steal. Shoot. Score. Three-pointer. Layup. Jump shot. Free throws.
Thomas, literally by himself, brought the Pistons back from extinction and into overtime.
The Pistons eventually lost in the extra five minutes, with Isiah fouling out and leaving the court to thunderous cheers. It was one of those rare occasions when you were actually kind of glad that a player fouled out so he could be properly acknowledged by the crowd.
Trey Burke, against Kansas, his shot having gone AWOL and his chemistry with his teammates jiggered, had been a non-factor for the game’s first 30 minutes. Michigan was getting run out of the gym by the Jayhawks, Michigan’s championship dreams melting away under Kansas’ heat.
Then Burke came alive.
He did what all great players do—he played his best when it mattered the most.
That was a big part of Isiah Thomas’ greatness as well—the propensity to turn his game up a notch or two or three when the chips were down.
Burke nailed triples and two-pointers, one after the other, in the frantic final minutes against Kansas, as Michigan whittled away at the Jayhawks’ lead like a woodpecker on a Redwood.
Gradually, the lead shrank.
It had ballooned to 14 points, but then it was 10, then it was seven, then it was five. Still, it didn’t look like Michigan, despite Burke’s sudden hotness, would have enough time to fully overcome their deficit.
The Kansas lead was three with about 10 seconds left when Burke bounced the ball up the court, ominously. There was no doubt which Michigan player was going to take the next shot.
With less than five seconds remaining, Burke let it rip from beyond the three-point arc, just as everyone suspected. A Kansas defender flew at him like, well, a Jayhawk.
No matter. Burke drained the triple, tying the game. Moments later, after a Kansas miss, the game headed into overtime.
Burke led the Wolverines past the Jayhawks in overtime, sealing the improbable victory. Two days layer, Burke helped Michigan demolish Florida, fresh off their win over Cinderella.
When you have a player of Burke’s talents—and they don’t grow on trees—if he can get hot at the right time, a college basketball team can win it all.
The aforementioned Isiah Thomas did just that in 1981 as he put Indiana on his back and led them to a national title.
Trey Burke doesn’t always play well for an entire 40 minutes. There have been times this season where he hasn’t played well for most of the game. But he has an uncanny knack for delivering at what is called “crunch time.”
He did it against Kansas, and Burke now has Michigan two measly wins away from winning the whole shebang.
Player of the Year, indeed!
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