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Posted on Sun, Feb 19, 2012 : 1:48 a.m.

Freshman Trey Burke proving to be final piece to Michigan basketball team's title hopes

By Kyle Meinke


Trey Burke was the focus of ESPN cameras after a 56-51 win over Ohio State on Saturday night.

Melanie Maxwell |

Zack Novak expected to be here.

Here, of course, being in the thick of a Big Ten title race with four games to go. The Michigan basketball team's momentous 56-51 win Saturday night against Ohio State moved it into a second-place tie with the Buckeyes, each trailing league leader Michigan State by half a game.

The Spartans play Sunday at Purdue.

Some would say the 17th-ranked Wolverines (20-7, 10-4) are now the leader for the regular-season crown. They play a softer schedule than the Spartans (20-5, 10-3) and Buckeyes (22-5, 10-4), although three of their final four are on the road.

The first one is Tuesday at Northwestern, where Michigan has lost its past two. That could be a trap game for the Wolverines, after their exhilarating win against Ohio State.

Novak isn't worried about how his team will respond to the title chase, though. This was the plan all along.


Trey Burke scoops a shot around Ohio State's Aaron Craft.

Melanie Maxwell I

But for a program that's been stuck somewhere between awful and middling for the better part of two decades, even that expectation represents change.

"Every year, we had just focused on getting into the tournament," Novak said. "That's where Michigan needs to be.

"This year, we changed it up. We said Big Ten championship. We said we need to win the Big Ten, and we expected to be here."

Now, here they are.

And here they are, because their freshman point guard continues to shine. Trey Burke -- introduced before the start of the game as "The Pride of Columbus, Ohio" -- got off to a slow start before settling into a groove.

The Columbus native finished with 17 points, including two key layups down the stretch. His final shot, a tough, leaning runner in the lane, gave the Wolverines an insurmountable five-point lead with 11 seconds left.

It was the difference between "what if" and "what next" for Michigan and its quest for its first regular-season title since 1985-86.

"You lose this one, and you’re probably not winning the Big Ten," Novak said. "We knew that. We knew we had to have this."

And they got it, thanks to Burke.

Michigan coach John Belien knew coming into the season his team would have a chance to compete for that elusive league title, but also recognized the biggest wild card in those hopes would be the point guard position.

He was losing Darius Morris to the NBA, and gaining a freshman.

Now, that freshman has flourished into one of the country's finest point guards.

"We talked about (winning a league title) every day, but I knew point guard was going to be an important position," Beilein said, when asked if he though Michigan would be in contention with four games left.

"Now, that certainly has (gone from) a point of doubt -- 'Well, he’s a freshman, what is he going to do?' -- to really a strength right now."

For all Novak and fellow senior Stu Douglass have done in their careers, they've never been in a Big Ten title hunt this late in a season. A win against Ohio State changed that.

They also had lost six consecutive times to the Buckeyes, with their last win coming when they were freshmen. A lot has happened since.

There were upsets of Duke and UCLA that helped Michigan get into the NCAA Tournament four years ago. There were two tournament wins. All big moments for a rising program.

And, yet, Novak said this was the biggest win of his career, because not only did it end the losing streak against the Buckeyes, it breathed legitimacy into their Big Ten title chances.

The program's come a long way since he got here, strides that first were made because of him. But he needed a final piece to make the final step, and its arrived in the form of a freshman.

"It's all for the seniors," Burke said. "They prepare us for these types of moments. Every single day, they got on us when we’re not focused -- even at halftime today, Zack got into us.

"They’ve never been in this position, to finish first in the Big Ten, and it’s just a great feeling. ... But we still have a lot of work to do. We have a great Northwestern team coming up on the road, and this win doesn’t mean nothing if we can’t go in there and get that win."

Kyle Meinke covers Michigan football for He can be reached at 734-623-2588, by email at and followed on Twitter @kmeinke.



Sun, Feb 19, 2012 : 8:33 p.m.

The key word is "hope". The road to the Big 10 football and basketball championships go through Madison and East Lansing. MSU Spartans 2011-12 Best record in Big 10 baseball! Best record in Big 10 football! Best record in Big 10 basketball! How's the view from down below? Rocco says "We've also proven to be the best defensive team in the Big 10 hold top teams to their lowest point production." Hey're not even a Top 3 defensive team in the Big 10! Get real!


Sun, Feb 19, 2012 : 11:44 p.m.

And apparently the road to self confidence is commenting on the U of M webpages... BTW, that "best record" in Big 10 football really paid off, eh?


Sun, Feb 19, 2012 : 5:45 p.m.

I didn't think that they would get past OSU either. I've been slowly revising upwards my assessment of the Michigan team. They've proven over time to have the best point guard in the Big 10. Burke completely outplayed OSU's Craft in last evening's game. We've also proven to be the best defensive team in the Big 10 hold top teams to their lowest point production. Also, the team has endurance. They seemed to be the best conditioned team in the Big 10. They're also the most gritty team in the Big 10. They don't give up and keep coming at you. If you let down, Michigan will make you pay. Until recently, Michigan was relying (as does OSU) on five players, a costly strategy come tournment time. Also, we're not really good 3pt shooters by percentages. That fact is countered by Michigan's ability to hit the 3 when the game is on the line. The team also has resilience. We've seen Hardaway, Smotrycz, and others completely fade in games (all except Burke) and the team manages to compensate for their sub par play. That's a characteristic they can carry into the NCAA tournament next month and make some noise.


Sun, Feb 19, 2012 : 5:38 p.m.

Hey, heartbreak, I have been noticing the same thing. Hardaway appears planted on the wing without moving to help or drive towards the basket for a pass and a possible easy layup. I don't know how he is allowed to continue such an inactive roll when the rest of the team is in continual motion.


Sun, Feb 19, 2012 : 2:08 p.m.

What an amazing defensive performance by this bball team. And Burke just took over the game when he had to. One area of concern remains for me: Watching the game on TV, they show a lot of wide-angle shots of the whole half-court and pretty much for the entire game, Hardaway just stands around on the wing doing nothing to help Burke or the other teammates, and is never in position to bail out the ball handler or get a rebound. What is the deal with that? It seems like he is out of it or something. The others are more mobile and active out there. I didn't think we'd beat Ohio yesterday, and that team performance was a great one.