Night Line: Freshman Guard Trey Burke Keeping Michigan Afloat in Big TenPosted by EJacoby on January 18th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is an RTC contributor and correspondent. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.
If Michigan wanted to stay alive in the Big Ten conference title race, Tuesday night’s home game against in-state rival and top 10-ranked Michigan State was a must-win. The Wolverines came away with a one-point victory in a nailbiter thanks to another strong performance from their leader – Trey Burke. It’s not a typo or an overstatement to say that the Wolverines’ freshman point guard has already turned into their go-to guy and overall best player this season. The Wolverines have gone uncharacteristically cold from three-point range and talented guard Tim Hardaway, Jr. has not been the expected consistent star player this year, but Burke’s heady play at the lead guard spot has helped Michigan remain a threat in the Big Ten race.
While improving to 5-2 in the Big Ten and 15-4 overall with Tuesday’s win, the Wolverines experienced the same troubles that they’ve been having in conference play, but it was again the strong play of the freshman Burke that carried the team to victory. Michigan, shooting 29.5% from deep in Big Ten action, shot 6-21 from three and Hardaway, Jr., scored only 10 points on 3-9 shooting without contributing much else to the game. But Burke had a game-high 20 points on 8-11 shooting with four rebounds, three assists, two steals, and two blocks, and made nearly all the key plays down the stretch of a tight game. Coming off a bad 16-point loss to Iowa, Michigan needed this win and now sits tied for second in the conference standings.
What was expected to be Michigan’s biggest concern this season, point guard play, has been the team’s greatest asset. Burke has not only been able to replace the departed Darius Morris admirably, but he’s also developed into the team’s best player. Hardaway scores 0.8 more points per game (15.4 PPG) than Burke, but the freshman guard averages more assists (4.8 APG), rebounds (3.6 RPG), steals, and blocks per game while shooting at a higher percentage from the field, free throw line, and three-point range. Observing Michigan’s games provides even more evidence, as Hardaway has had a tendency to force the issue offensively and get sidetracked on the defensive end. Burke, meanwhile, has consistently played at a controlled pace running the offense and shown confidence in both his shooting and driving abilities. He constantly makes the right decisions with the basketball as the only true point guard on the roster.
The fact that Burke has clearly been the Wolverines’ best player is not necessarily a good thing for John Beilein’s team. When Hardaway is not playing efficiently on offense, Michigan has often stalled in the half court and forced Burke’s hand to make tough plays since the defense is not keyed in on his backcourt mate. Hardaway has been very good at times but he has much more upside than he’s showing, and reaching that will change the entire outlook of a team that knows what to expect from its other rotation players. Senior guards Stu Douglass and Zach Novak are both good outside shooters and chip in with a combined 16.8 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game. Most importantly, these two provide strong leadership and have experience running Beilein’s unique system. The Wolverines go with a trio of sophomore forwards down low, each with a much different skill set. Evan Smotrycz thrives on the perimeter, where he shoots 44% from three, but also leads the team in rebounding at 6.1 per game due to his size and skill set. Jordan Morgan is a banger on the block who can also run the floor and is the team’s second-leading rebounder with 5.5 boards per night. And Jon Horford, currently recovering from a foot injury, is a fluid athlete still working on refining his game around the rim. The Wolverines are a versatile group that can beat you in a number of ways when they are clicking.
It’s anyone guess as to where Michigan would be without Trey Burke, but it certainly would not be ranked in the Top 20 and sitting in second place in the Big Ten. RTC columnist Zach Hayes ranked Burke as the fifth best freshman in America last week, and that was before the guard led his team to its biggest win of the season over Michigan State. Burke has been largely responsible for his team’s 1.05 points per possession rate in conference play, and that can be improved upon if his teammate Hardaway starts playing at a more consistent level and stops shooting so much from behind the arc, where he attempts over five threes per game at an under 30% rate. For now, we know that Michigan can compete with the best teams in their conference. But if the more veteran players start following the lead of their freshman point guard, the Wolverines will become a more consistent team and be considered a Big Ten favorite instead of a second-tier threat.