The man who chewed his nails all week says he does not get nervous. Trey Burke just does that to help himself concentrate. So there was Michigan's sophomore point guard, nibbling away in a film session in the ballroom of the Crowne Plaza in Auburn Hills, Mich. The Wolverines were just an hour from their Ann Arbor home but deep in NCAA Tournament World, which revolves around a bracket that links the fates of 68 teams spread across the country.
This is an article from the April 1, 2013 issue
On a team bus ride last Thursday, coach John Beilein asked his staff to explain how Marquette came back from a six-point deficit with 70 seconds left to stun Davidson. In a Crowne Plaza ballroom that served as dining hall and meeting room for the Wolverines, assistant coach Jeff Meyer studied No. 13 seed South Dakota State, Michigan's first opponent, while watching Wichita State play Pitt on his iPad. Meyer had worked with Shockers coach Gregg Marshall at Winthrop.
And when several players gathered in one of the hotel rooms—relaxing, taking turns getting their hair cut and laughing—Burke sat on the edge of a bed, watching one of the First Four games. Burke's teammate from Northland High in Columbus, guard Devon Moore, helped James Madison beat LIU-Brooklyn on the familiar NCAA-branded court.
"It gets me excited, just seeing this logo," Burke said.
SI had exclusive access to Burke and the No. 4--seeded Wolverines during the first week of the NCAA tournament, including walk-throughs, team meals, film sessions and locker room meetings. It was a window into the tournament with a team that is talented enough to win the national title but inexperienced enough to lose its first-round matchup.
Of the top nine players in Michigan's rotation, five are freshmen. The effort of these first-year players has fluctuated, and at times during the season they seemed overwhelmed. Beilein's terminology is so dense that it sounds like a football team's, except there is no huddle between plays. Freshman shooting guard Nik Stauskas says that even now, "Sometimes he'll call a play and I'll kind of blank out on what I do."
Beilein and his staff have made a calculated decision to stay positive with their young players, reminding them that they beat Michigan State (a No. 3 seed in this tournament) and played Indiana (a No. 1) even, rather than berate them for the 15-point lead they blew in a loss at Penn State. "I'm trying to pump them up as much as I can," the coach says. "The errors we make right now are of omission, that second of Should I do it or not?" The 60-year-old coach has taken four programs to the NCAA tournament. He's never advanced past the Elite Eight, but he's never had a team this talented.
And Michigan can't afford to wait for next season. Burke, the Big Ten player of the year, almost left for the NBA last spring and will almost certainly turn pro this June. Pro scouts are eyeing freshman forwards Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, as well as junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr., the only upperclassman who starts. In college basketball these days, as soon as you teach kids to use a knife and fork, they leave to run a restaurant.
The team is a tantalizing but unwieldy package, and Burke, SI's national player of the year, is the string that holds it together. A year ago, in his only tournament game, Burke missed three shots in the final minute as the fourth-seeded Wolverines lost to No. 13 Ohio. He said that game was "definitely on my mind" as he thought about turning pro. He did not want to leave as a loser.
Thursday, vs. South Dakota State
Beilein warned his players all week about guarding the three-point line and stopping the Jackrabbits' star point guard, Nate Wolters. But the pregame meetings were notable for what Beilein did not say: South Dakota State was not nearly as athletic as Michigan. About 30 minutes before tip-off, Burke sat at his locker, headphones on, fiddling with his phone, looking as if he were waiting for a bus, not the biggest game of his life.
"Never changes," assistant Jeff Meyer said of Burke's demeanor. "Been like this since he walked through the door."
While some of his teammates are still transitioning to college basketball, the 6-foot, 190-pound Burke has the demeanor of a 10-year NBA veteran. On the court he is almost expressionless. He doesn't waste energy jawing with opponents. On flights or bus rides after games, he watches the whole game again, regardless of the result.
But in the locker room at halftime, with Michigan leading 30--26, Burke's competitive fire is evident. Michigan had given up an open shot off an inbounds with the shot clock almost expired, the kind of mental mistake the team has battled all season. The Wolverines took turns getting mad at one another before Burke calmed down and asked anybody who would answer:
"How much are we up?"
Four points, he was told.
He said, "We get three or four stops in a row, we're good."
Though Burke would finish with his worst shooting line of the year (2 for 12, six points), the staff saw it as a good sign that Michigan could win 71--56 on an off night from its star. "Five more! Five more!" the players shouted as they headed to the locker room. Burke sat down in one of the plush seats normally used by the NBA's Pistons, looked at Hardaway and said, "If we all play like that, every game, we won't lose."
Friday, practice sessions
To begin preparations for No. 5--seeded VCU, the Wolverines were moved to a cramped, bare room down the hall. Even the whiteboard was worse. It did not erase cleanly. If the Wolverines looked closely, they could read the Rams' keys to their game against Akron the night before.
Number 1 was no surprise: TERRORIZE THEM W/PRESSURE.
Rams coach Shaka Smart thrives on a pressing scheme known as Havoc, which throttled Akron 88--42. Michigan had another plan.
Early in the week, Wolverines assistant coach LaVall Jordan had looked up the Rams' stats. Jordan knew that they thrive on forcing turnovers, but when he saw that they force 20 per game, he laughed. The number is preposterously high. But within an hour of studying stats and film, Jordan understood the risk that Smart's system entails: "They have to turn you over. If they don't, you shoot too well."
In a film session on Friday, Beilein told his team how to attack the diamond-formation press: Get the ball to Burke, run downcourt and "set the table," then attack for quick shots. Jordan told the team, "Their opponents shoot 45%. In their wins, they force 22 [turnovers]. In their losses, only 12.5."
Saturday, vs. VCU
Beilein walked into the team's game-day breakfast and announced the first play to his assistants—"Stauskas, get him some space, see what we can do"—as he poured himself coffee. The coaches had prepared for VCU in one day and on very little sleep. A hotel employee was amused by how much the staff's coffee intake increased each day. But Beilein seemed confident for a reason.
Within the program there was a clear sense that the matchup was good for Michigan. The Wolverines are vulnerable against tough, disciplined teams that rebound well, post up and force them to work in the half-court. Against running teams like VCU, the Wolverines' athleticism and skill level take over, and their youth is not exposed.
Beilein understood how good VCU is, but he did not want his team spooked by talking too much about their press. He has seen, with his own 1-3-1 zone, how the mere idea of it can rattle an opponent. "We're not giving in to this crap with their Havoc," Beilein said in his pregame speech. "We're not giving in to that!"
On that first play Beilein wanted, Stauskas drove and got fouled. He hit both free throws. On the next play Burke picked a Ram's pocket and led a fast break. Then the lefthanded McGary, who can throw a 40-yard spiral with his right hand, whipped a pass to Robinson for a layup. The 6'10", 250-pound McGary also posted up and dunked, leaped over Rams for rebounds and set a screen on guard Briante Weber that was so brutal, he is lucky nobody called 911. Weber crumpled to the floor.
Michigan led 38--23 at the break. In the locker room Hardaway warned his teammates, "We've been up 15 before. We know what happens." Some Wolverines said they needed to respond when VCU went on a run. Burke cut them off.
"Real talk, real talk, real talk!" Burke said. "If we check, they will not go on a run."
Beilein told his team, "Here is what I love: They're coming at us with all that ha-ha, boo-bedy-ba—and we took it right at them!"
It was only halftime, but VCU was out of options, and the Wolverines knew it. They also knew they would get plenty of good shots in the second half. They just had to make them.
"It's about to get nasty," Stauskas told his teammates.
He was correct. Burke committed seven turnovers, but he finished with 18 points, including a baseline floater and jumper after a crossover that froze a defender, and he orchestrated the offensive devastation. McGary made 10 of 11 shots for 21 points and grabbed 14 rebounds.
It was precisely the game the coaches envisioned. And it was the team they had been looking for all year.
For years Burke has heard he is too small and not athletic enough. He briefly committed to Penn State because he didn't think he would get any other Big Ten offers.
But Burke doesn't play the disrespect game. He says he was "a late bloomer, definitely.... I had a good jump shot, I was good at penetrating, but I wasn't the most explosive athlete."
Last spring, to help improve his athleticism, Burke did serious lower-body workouts for the first time. The results surprised even him. In his first game this season, an exhibition against Saginaw Valley (Mich.) State, "I felt too fast," he says. "I had to slow down to get where I wanted to get."
He had improved his vertical leap from 37 inches to 41½. By comparison, All-NBA point guard Chris Paul's predraft vertical was 38 inches. Burke cut his three-quarter-court sprint time from roughly 3.3 seconds to 3.06; before Derrick Rose was drafted in 2008, he ran it in 3.05. Those are just workout numbers, but they indicate that Burke is athletic enough to excel in the NBA.
Maybe the best reason to believe in him is that when he went back to Michigan, he went completely back. As a freshman he was quiet, and "that was a problem, because I was the starting point guard." When he decided to stay in school, he told his best friend on the team, grad student Corey Person, that he would be a better leader. Teammates say he has done it.
After the Wolverines routed VCU 78--53, their coaches stood in a small room off the locker room, watching the in-house feed of the Michigan State--Memphis game being played 100 feet away. It would be more than 24 hours before they'd know their Sweet 16 opponent: They'll take on Kansas in Arlington, Texas on Friday.
Burke showered, dressed and grabbed his backpack. As he walked through the stands toward his parents, he said his teammates are finally learning the kind of effort it takes to win the national championship. He was asked about McGary, who came off the bench most of the season because he had to earn the coaches' trust.
"People forget how young Mitch is," Burke said, and in that moment, it was easy to forget how young Burke is. He is 20—five months younger than McGary. The Wolverines will need to play better games and beat much better teams. But they believe, in all their hearts, that it's about to get nasty.
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