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SportsMonday Column: Trey Burke, born cool

Todd Needle/Daily
Michigan freshman guard Trey Burke scored 30 points against Minnesota on Friday, but couldn’t find his footing against Ohio State in Saturday’s semifinal loss. Buy this photo

By Tim Rohan, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 11, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS — Watching Trey Burke play the game, you wonder if he was born dribbling a basketball, born smoothly attacking the basket with either hand — floating, gliding, powering, however he wanted. You wonder if he was born so cool.

When the game’s on the line, Michigan’s freshman guard plays his best. When his team needs him most, he plays his best. When he’s about to go off — which is all the time — he looks like he’s snarling, the same way Kobe Bryant does before he devours someone on the hardwood.

Burke was born snarling, looking to abuse a big man trying to hedge his pick-and-roll, I’d imagine.

It’s that talent and how he plays the point-guard position that make him the beginning and the end of Michigan’s NCAA Tournament chances.

Look at how the Wolverines fared in the Big Ten Tournament. Calm and cool, Burke polished off a career-high, 30-point masterpiece on Friday, playing all 45 minutes, while other teammates floundered early against a mediocre Minnesota team. Saturday, Burke had the worst game of his life — no poise, no legs — and the Wolverines lost to Ohio State by 22.

There are two reasons Burke’s Saturday meltdown won’t be repeated anytime soon:

No. 1: He hates to lose.

His father, Benji Burke, remembered Burke starting to play organized basketball when he was five. But Burke couldn’t keep track of the score, Benji said, so after his games Burke would run up to his father.

“Dad, did we win!?”

Always, Benji would say, “Trey, you played really, really good.”

“(Before,) his team would lose, and when I’d tell him, he’d just start crying,” Benji said. “It was like a scene. He would break down and start crying.”

No. 2: Burke really was born cool, his father admitted, especially with the ball in his hands.

“When he was really young, it just came natural to him,” Benji said. “He was really good at handling the ball, with both hands.”

Saturday felt peculiar, and it stands alone in Burke’s season of highlights, because Burke’s play — which included eight turnovers — wasn’t typical. He’ll progress back to his cool mean.

He showed up, figuratively knocking on John Beilein’s door, cool as a cucumber. Watching Burke play in summer open gyms, Matt Vogrich said, everyone knew then that the savvy Burke would be their starting point guard.

“You could kind of tell that this summer — you know, it’s hard to say that (Burke’s) really evolved, because I guess you could tell that this was a possibility and that this could happen, the way he’s playing," said Stu Douglass, who, as a senior, was expected to compete for the point guard spot at the start of the season.

That summer, David Merritt — one of the two original cool point guards to lead Michigan to its “welcome back” NCAA Tournament bid in 2009 — played in the open gyms. He said Burke couldn’t score on him, but added: “Tim (Hardaway Jr.) wasn’t there, but (Burke) was the best player on the floor at that open gym.”

After the Minnesota game, Merritt and C.J. Lee, the other cool guard from the 2009 tournament run, drank in the Wolverine locker room that was buzzing about Burke’s game.

“The expectations are getting higher and higher each day, but we’ve got better players in this locker room,” Lee said. “It’s as simple as that. That kid, he’s 19 years old, but he has a grown man’s game. And he’s only going to get better and better.”

Both have front row seats for Burke’s ascension. Lee is on Beilein’s bench as an administrative assistant who works with Burke on his academics; Merritt is a radio analyst calling Michigan games.

“The whole program’s goal is to get back to a point where it’s not necessarily when are we going to get to the tournament, but that it’s an every year type of thing that we expect not only to be in the tournament, but to make a run,” Merritt said, looking around the room.

Neither Lee nor Merritt was as highly touted or praised as Burke, but their leadership and poise got more results out of less talent long before Douglass and Zack Novak made doing that popular. Merritt and Lee were asked if they had advice for Burke.

“What advice could I give to a Trey Burke?” Merritt jokingly said.

“I talk life in general. He’s got the court all taken care of,” Lee chimed in.

“Ice your knees. Get some rest. Ice your knees.” Merritt said. “Just continue to do what you’re doing.”

For Michigan, letting Burke be Burke has rewarded Beilein and the program handsomely — big shots against Michigan State and Ohio State come to mind — but Saturday reminded everyone he’s still just a freshman.

Saturday’s growing pains shouldn’t worry anyone, but this question should start to be asked: When will Burke become too cool for school? Or, better put, when will Burke think so?

“I’m sure he thinks he’s ready,” Benji said. “But I think Trey needs to stay in school and prepare himself. For one, he has to be a consistent college point guard. And I know he had a consistent year, probably one of the most consistent years on the team.”

Benji said he wants to see his son get stronger, and he wanted to make sure Burke would be a solid first-round pick in the NBA draft if he left. As of now, Benji said, the family is “hearing late first, early second.”

For at least another year, Michigan fans can stay as cool as their point guard: Benji said “for sure” Burke would be back, snarling, shooting and staring, next season.

—Rohan can be reached at trohan@umich.edu or on Twitter @TimRohan.