ATLANTA — A year ago at this time, when Trey Burke decided to come back to Michigan for his sophomore season, the star point guard immediately started talking about a national championship.
It was certainly a possibility — Burke’s return put the Wolverines near the top of the preseason rankings — but expectations like that are still hard to live up to. That’s why Michigan’s run to the Final Four has been so rewarding.
“It was just a matter of putting all the pieces together — everybody understanding their role,” Burke said. “Now that we’re here, it’s definitely surreal. It feels really good to be here. We’re having a lot of fun.”
After considering a jump to the NBA, Burke has made the most of another season in college. On Thursday, he was named national player of the year by The Associated Press — the first Michigan player to win that award since 1966. Now the focus turns to Saturday’s national semifinal against Syracuse, when Burke will try to move the Wolverines to within one win of that NCAA title.
“My teammates and coaching staff, you know, they put me in this position,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to receive those awards without them.
“It would be great to get a win on Saturday, to have the opportunity to play on Monday and cut down the nets would definitely be a great feeling.”
When Burke first arrived at Michigan, he was immediately under pressure. Point guard Darius Morris had left after his sophomore season to go to the NBA, and Burke’s performance as the replacement would go a long way toward determining if the Wolverines could take another step forward after reaching the NCAA tournament in 2011.
The result: a share of the 2012 Big Ten title — the school’s first in 26 years.
Burke averaged 14.8 points per game as a freshman, and his perimeter shooting made him a nice fit for Michigan’s offense. One of the best compliments a point guard can receive is that he’s an extension of his coach on the court. That was true right away.
“I think in the first couple months, he was reading me,” Wolverines coach John Beilein said. “He was putting deposits in my trust bank more and more every time. That’s really important. The more deposits he made, the more I knew I could trust him.”
All that success made Burke a candidate to leave Michigan after only one season, but he decided to stay following what was admittedly a stressful decision-making process.
With a weight seemingly lifted from his shoulders, Burke returned this season looking a little stronger. His stats improved almost across the board — from 14.8 points per game to 18.8, 5.1 assists to 7.7, 35 percent 3-point shooting to 38 percent.
“I really grew up last year,” Burke said. “I played with two great seniors in Zack Novak and Stu Douglass. I was able to learn from them, learn certain leadership skills. Coming in to this year, I tried to be more of the voice out there — be the Zack Novak that this team needs. It is my job to stay poised.”