ANN ARBOR, Mich. – In the coaches' locker room of the newly renovated Crisler Center, there are floor-to-ceiling murals of two former University of Michigan greats. Not pictured is Cazzie Russell, perhaps the most beloved basketball player in program history – he has his own section on the concourse. Not pictured is Glen Rice, who shot Michigan to its most recent national title in 1989 – he too has tributes elsewhere in the building. No, the two Wolverines in the coaches' room are Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard, leaders of the most beloved and disgraced team in Michigan history.
The Fab Five is still hovering over this program, a generation after the players left. The group led Michigan to back-to-back national championship games (as freshmen and sophomores) with a brand of basketball that was ferocious and freewheeling and a little bit feckless. But after they left, Chris Webber was found to have taken money from a booster, the university took down both of those Final Four banners because of the ensuing sanctions, and for more than 20 years now, Michigan has fought with that team's legacy. It has tried to rebuild what they had without committing the sins they did. It has tried to win like the Fab Five without winning like the Fab Five.
It hasn't worked.
There have been NBA-caliber stars like Jamal Crawford and Darius Morris, but no transformational players. There have been good teams, but no squad that truly threatened to raise a banner to replace the ones that have been removed.
In the last 20 years, the college basketball world has moved into the Fab Five era of brash talk and one-and-done stars, but Michigan has remained in the pre Fab-Five era of team-building. The team's current coach, John Beilein, is old-school, with a Schembechler-like proclamation of "the team, the team, the team." His methods are so traditional that he insists prep ratings are "skewed," instead choosing to recruit "presence," and he refuses to contact hot-shot preps until at least their sophomore year in high school, even if that means losing top players to other schools who begin recruiting them earlier.
"We want to date before we propose," explains assistant coach LaVall Jordan. "We love you, but we want to get to know you."
Beilein is revered on campus and in the administration for his basketball brilliance – he has more than 600 wins in his career – and his approachable science-teacher vibe, but the question lingers: Can Michigan have its cake and eat it too, in the form of players who are somehow must-see superstars and system guys?
The unspoken answer, in the time since the Fab Five reigned, was no.
Then along came Trey Burke.
Alfonso Clark Burke III is, in one sense, the least likely of heirs to the Fab Five throne. He was more or less overlooked in high school, ceding the spotlight to Jared Sullinger, his NBA-bound teammate. Even though Burke was Columbus-born and wanted to go to Ohio State, the Buckeyes didn't recruit him because they already had two star guards locked up.
Burke originally committed to Penn State, then decommitted, and probably would have gone to Cincinnati if not for a family friend who knew Michigan assistant coach Jeff Meyer. When he picked Michigan in 2010, Burke's high school coach (who is also Sullinger's dad) praised him by saying, "He played himself up to the top 100 in the country."
Coming out of high school, Jalen Rose he was not.
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Burke isn't even the most likely superstar on Michigan's current roster. The squad is loaded with NBA bloodlines, from Tim Hardaway, Jr. to Glenn Robinson III to Jon Horford.
"I'm the normal one," jokes Trey's dad, Benji, when asked about the famous dads.
But it didn't take long for some at Michigan to see the prize they'd inadvertently landed.
Early last season, Burke's first on Michigan's campus, former guard Zack Novak walked into Jordan's office and said, "Coach, Trey Burke's really good." Jordan smiled. "No," Novak declared, "he's really good."
Burke basically had to tell Jordan himself, when in the first few weeks of practice, he informed the assistant, "I just win, Coach." Jordan playfully razzed him. "No, Coach," Burke said flatly. "I just win." It was then that Jordan knew Burke would take charge even on a team of household names.
Burke's emergence came because of a rare and somewhat conflicted personality blend given to him by his parents. It's Benji and Ronda who have raised Trey to be a perfect combination of baller and Beilein protégé.
Benji was also a point guard, who starred at Northwest Missouri State. Trey describes him as "laid back." Benji, like Trey, has the "presence" Beilein describes, with an ability to analyze the entire court. "You have to see the floor on offense," Beilein says, "and see the floor on defense." Trey, like his dad, has a sixth-sense awareness. "He never seems like he's even guarded," Beilein says of his 20-year-old point guard. "He's like a quarterback who never seems to rush his throws. He seems like he's never in trouble. There's never a lot of drama."
That probably hurt Burke in high school more than it helped him. He was not even six feet as a prep (although he is exactly 6-0 now), and his on-court strengths were certainly not obvious to the star searchers.
"He's been pretty much an elite guard and I have no idea why his recruitment wasn't where we thought it should be," Benji says. "You have probably three or four [ranking] services. They all want to say the same thing: 'Hey I can't rank a kid that high and nobody else has him that high.' So by the time [Trey's] on the national circuit, they have their 20 kids. Those guys don't want to be different. We can't have kids come out of nowhere. We think it's a blessing. That's what made Trey the worker that he is. He's a hard worker. He really, really works at his craft. A lot of that has to do with not being with where he should be on those lists."
If Burke was regarded in high school as highly has he is now – a potential NBA lottery pick – it's highly unlikely he'd be at Michigan.
Then there's Burke's mom, Ronda. She ran track, the sport of big talkers and ferocious competitors. She passed that on to her son, who admits he "threw a fit" as a child when he lost at Duck, Duck, Goose. "He got the competitiveness from me," Ronda says. "If you're going to play the game, you play to win. If your mindset isn't to win, what's the point? He gets that from me."
It was Ronda who Trey overheard in the crowd two Sundays ago in Columbus, Ohio, verbally defending her son against Ohio State fans who were calling him out. "She talks like she's out there playing," Trey says.
(Several days removed from the game, Ronda still takes issue with the treatment she got from a select few Buckeye fans. She says a few were even pointing at Trey's grandmother, Jackie, who is 67. "It bothered me a little," Ronda says. "I'm a big fan of my team and a big fan of the student section. But I also believe the student section can be a sixth man without being belligerent, disrespectful, and rude. A few of them sprinkled here and there were on another level.")
This combination – mom is the emotional gas pedal and dad is the brake – produced a blend of aggression and watchfulness that comes out in almost every answer Trey Burke gives, where part of him wants to fight and the other part wants to examine.
The first question in an interview on campus last Monday, for example, was an ice-breaker: "Who would win in a length-of-the-floor race between you and Denard Robinson, if the quarterback had to dribble a basketball?" Burke did not laugh. He broke it down, saying he would win that race, while in a straight sprint, he would lose by "a foot." Then he changed his answer to "a foot and a half." Then his expression changed and he leaned in and said he ran track. "People underestimate my speed," he said. "I'm pretty fast." Part of him wanted to preview the race and part of him wanted to run it.
Burke answered other questions similarly. When asked about the team's only loss, he admits that, at times, he finds himself in a game dwelling on plays that happened several minutes before. Then, a few minutes later, he says he has the ability to move on from a play immediately. So which is it? Does he obsess about strategy in the middle of a game or move on to the next thing? It's likely both: Benji's son is constantly evaluating, while Ronda's son is constantly in the moment.
Burke's daily dilemma showed up in one of his greatest personal struggles: whether or not to turn pro after last season's first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Ohio. The aggressive part took over, as Burke wanted to prove to NBA execs how well he could do in tryouts. Burke admits he made the decision to leave – just as eagerly as he made his decision to commit early to Penn State. "At first," he says, "I was [leaving]."
Trey's parents, not surprisingly, didn't like the idea. "He was 19, so he doesn't know what he doesn't know," Benji says. "I was always wanting him to stay. Being a year more mature, things could be easier."
Burke had intense discussions with his parents and with Beilein. "I was going through this for three weeks, every single day," he says. "I'm so competitive. I know I could compete."
He ended up going back on his first instinct and choosing to stay at Michigan. "The physical part – I wasn't ready," he says. "I don't think I was as advanced as I am now."
But fans might be surprised at one of the main reasons he gives for staying. Burke says if the team had gone farther than the first round of last year's NCAA Tournament, he may have left. Ohio, the upstart team from Burke's home state, could have saved this dream season for Michigan. "If we went farther," he says, "I may not be here right now."
Now Beilein and the Michigan community get to watch Burke's two personality traits battle for prominence. Burke can get everyone involved, like he did in the first half of the team's win over N.C. State in November, with 11 assists. Or he can play the alpha dog and score, which he did in the second half of that same game, scoring all of his 18 points after intermission. Burke is now averaging more than 18 points and seven assists per game. The last Big Ten player to average more than 17 and 7 was Magic Johnson.
But Burke's greatest strength has been his greatest weakness. In the first half of Michigan's lone loss, at Ohio State, Burke was completely shut down by Aaron Craft, who Beilein calls "the best point guard defender I have ever seen." Burke looked torn between his two on-court personas. He tried too hard to get others involved, but he also tried too hard to score. "I was so eager to make something happen," he says.
Burke settled down and helped erase all of a 20-point deficit in the second half. With 14 seconds to go, he found himself with a three-point shot to take the lead and he took it without hesitation. This is a team known for its teamwork and passing, but Burke wanted the ball and the big shot. "I have to know when to take over," he says. "It's a balance I have to continue to find."
A star taking over games is something that has been largely missing at Michigan for 20 years. It is often Burke who does the lion's share of the talking at halftime, and he says he feels no reluctance to call his own plays down the stretch, even if they don't align with what Beilein is seeing. "The coach is the coach," Burke says. "But you get out on the court and it's different. Sometimes I will call a play he doesn't see. You can't really rely on him as much."
That kind of talk is certainly a callback to the Fab Five, which often seemed to be running itself on the court – for better or for worse. In the end, that team freelanced a little too much and ended up losing its last shot at a national title when Chris Webber called his infamous timeout in the final seconds of the championship game against North Carolina in 1993. That was the last time Michigan was in the top 2 in the country. As of Tuesday, the Wolverines are ranked 2nd, within a whisper of top-ranked Duke, which got blown out by Miami (Fla.). Burke, with his blend of Fab Five flash and fundamentals, has led Michigan almost all the way back.
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