BROOKLYN — An hour before tip-off last Sunday, Trey Burke sat in the visiting locker room of the Barclays Center and reminisced about a time when he wore a different navy blue jersey.
The Utah Jazz’s second-year point guard finished with a decorated career at Michigan. Burke won Sports Illustrated’s National Player of the Year award as a sophomore in 2013 along with many other accolades, including Big Ten Player of the Year and becoming the first Wolverine ever to win the Naismith Award. Burke also earned a trip to the Final Four after leading his team on a memorable March Madness run.
Burke came to John Beilein’s motion offense by way of Columbus, Ohio (of all places), where he grew up watching college basketball, specifically the Maui Invitational and NCAA tournament. Burke was named Ohio’s Mr. Basketball out of Northland High School, starring with future Celtics forward Jared Sullinger.
“I watched Ohio State coming from there, and I watched Duke as well. I always had a favorite player on Duke,” Burke says. “J.J. Redick, I was a big fan of his. He was a killer in college.”
Redick, a transcendent albeit vilified Blue Devil, left Duke as the school’s all-time points leader. While Burke went pro after just two years, his legacy still looms large in Ann Arbor and can be seen in the Crisler Center rafters where he helped hang a Final Four banner.
Michigan entered 2013 as a preseason top-10 team after clinching a share of its first Big 10 title since 1986. A disappointing 65-60 first-round tournament exit at the hands of No. 13 seed Ohio in 2012 left the Wolverines hungry for redemption. With Burke almost certainly heading pro after flirting with the NBA following his freshman campaign, Tim Hardaway Jr. in his third season and wing Glenn Robinson III also on campus, 2013 was seen as a small title window for Michigan. The Wolverines won their first 16 games and eventually grabbed a No. 4 seed in the tournament.
Burke’s signature moment came in the Sweet 16 with Michigan down 76-73 with no timeouts to top-seeded Kansas. Burke brought the ball up with 11.7 seconds remaining following a missed free throw from KU’s Elijah Johnson. He passed half-court before working his way toward the left sideline and finding himself alone against 6’8” forward Kevin Young some 30 feet away from the basket.
Burke took one step-back dribble and, as SI.com’s Andy Staples wrote, drained a shot that proved the existence of enormous onions. Burke scored five points in overtime to secure an 87-85 victory and a trip to the Elite Eight.
“Down 14 with six minutes left, anything can happen, man. Anything can happen,” Burke said in the post-game locker room.
A rout of Florida and a grind-it-out 61-56 win against Syracuse had Michigan in its first national title game since the Fab Five in 1993, and Burke in the biggest basketball game of his career.
While Michigan ultimately lost 82-76 to Louisville in the final, Burke scored a game-high 24 points and produced plenty of highlights, including this athletic chase-down block that was whistled for a questionable foul.
From the fans to the media attention to the opportunity to play in the Georgia Dome, Burke calls the Final Four one of the best weeks he’s ever had playing basketball.
“One word to describe the tournament would be … random,” Burke says. “You don’t know what teams are going to be upset. You don’t know what teams are going to be the Cinderellas.”