20 Questions: Can Michigan Remain Great Without Trey Burke?

Posted by Chris Johnson on October 18th, 2013

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Throughout the preseason, RTC national columnists will answer the 20 most compelling questions heading into the 2013-14 season. Previous columns in this year’s series are located here.   

Replacing Trey Burke will be hard. Michigan fans have no doubt heard this statement plenty of times since the Wolverines’ exhilarating national championship game run ended in Atlanta last April, and they’re going to hear it a few more times before the season tips off in three weeks. Not only was Burke the best player on his own team, he was, according to most national award voters, the best player in the country. It is impossible to replace a player that good, that impactful, in the span of one offseason; all Michigan can hope to do is to mitigate his departure. But before we get into how the Wolverines will attempt to recreate Burke’s production, let’s have a statistical look back at his incredible 2012-13 season. While playing 87.5 percent of Michigan’s available minutes, Burke posted an offensive rating of 121.2 (52nd in the country), assisted on 37.3 percent of his team’s buckets (23rd) and used up 29 percent of available possessions (66th). All of which translates thusly: Burke played a lot, scored a lot, had a lot of assists, and did all of it efficiently.

The Wolverines should adjust to life without Burke while maintaining their status as a top-tier BIg Ten outfit (Getty Images).

The Wolverines should adjust to life without Burke while maintaining their status as a top-tier BIg Ten outfit (Getty Images).

There is no Michigan player capable of replicating that statistical profile – which ranked second in Ken Pomeroy’s final player of the year standings, behind (believe it or not) Louisville guard Russ Smith. That’s fine, because the Wolverines don’t need an All-American point guard to remain one of the best teams in the Big Ten. They have plenty of firepower returning at other spots. For a few weeks after the season, as the NBA Draft loomed and several Michigan players – including Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, both in position to parlay the momentum of standout March performances into likely first-round selections – debated leaving school, it appeared as if John Beilein might need to hunker down for a bit of a rebuild. Then Robinson and McGary announced their respective returns, and the repercussions of Burke’s departure didn’t feel quite as drastic. That duo’s decision ensured Michigan would stay relevant in what’s almost sure to be another brutal Big Ten. The matter of replacing Burke, of course, can’t be addressed by Robinson or McGary, nor does Michigan have a star point guard waiting in the wings, another surefire first-round pick capable of reprising Burke’s ridiculous production from last season.

What they do have is freshman Derrick Walton, the No. 8-ranked point guard in the class of 2013, according to ESPN. Scouts rave about Walton’s feel for the game, his tight ball-handling, his pressure defense, and his ability to play as a “true point guard.” If he can apply even one of those traits consistently in his first year on campus, Michigan will be well on its way to another year of Big Ten, if not national, contention. The Wolverines don’t necessarily need Walton to replace Burke – they need him to manage the position, to avoid cracking under relentless perimeter pressure from Big Ten guards, to consistently get the ball to high-scoring teammates like Nik Stauskas, McGary and Robinson, to facilitate. If Walton, as a base line, can develop into something like a “game manager,” (and sprinkle in some scoring here and there) while letting his more accomplished teammates take on the bulk of scoring load, Michigan will have gotten all it can ask for out of its freshman point guard. The most encouraging part of this situation is that, should Walton stumble out of the gate, the Wolverines have another option at point guard. You remember him well from the first half of the national championship game: now-sophomore Spike Albrecht. Whether or not Albrecht’s mind-bogglingly awesome 17-point performance against Louisville was an anomaly – and whether or not Kate Upton ever responded to his postgame heat check – Albrecht can be a serviceable reserve piece behind Walton, or even serve as a part-time starter. The point is, both Walton and Albrecht should be able to handle the position capably; that Michigan has two very solid, if not Burke-like, players lying in wait to replace their former do-everything superstar is a better situation than most teams could wish to have.

With Walton and Albrecht sharing point guard duties, Stauskas, Robinson and McGary shouldering the lion’s share of Michigan’s point production, and reserves Caris LeVert, Jon Horford and five-star freshman Zak Irvin contributing off the bench, Michigan can reasonably set its sights on another deep March run. Trying to replace All-Americans is never easy, and Michigan can’t hope to replace its most recent one this season. That doesn’t mean it can’t be one of the best teams in arguably the best conference in the country. In fact, being “great” is a distinct possibility.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.

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