Wolverines enter enemy territory to get their point guard
Just about the most unlikely place on the planet for the Wolverines to find the answer to their most pressing problem or the missing piece of their puzzle would be Columbus, in the heart of bitter rival and neighbor Ohio.
But that's just where freshman point guard Trey Burke came from, and he has made quite an impact in his few months in Ann Arbor. Michigan moved into the start of Big Ten play as a confident and seemingly complete team, thanks to its ambassador from the capital of the dreaded Buckeye state.
Burke, who played on the same high school team as Ohio State's sophomore All-American Jared Sullinger, took his talents north. Burke, teamed with a talent like Sullinger, must have made things brutal for the opposition, because under his direction the Wolverines are meshing and playing like a Big Ten contender.
When point guard Darius Morris jumped to the NBA after a brilliant sophomore season, it left a chasm in the Michigan offense. Burke came on board and has been what Michigan coach John Beilein has modestly called "atypical" for a freshman.
Burke used the first two months of the season as a springboard into the Big Ten meat of the schedule and was impressive along the way. He is second among all freshmen in the Big Ten with about 13 points per game and his five assists per game rank third in the conference overall.
Beilein has leaned heavily on Burke, who averaged better than 33 minutes per game through the first dozen contests. Burke averaged 12 points and six assists per game to help Michigan place third in the Maui Invitational, against very good competition.
The Michigan coach admits to not placing very high expectations on Burke, or any freshman, but adds that he has been more than pleasantly surprised by Burke's impact.
"What I think has been the most pleasing part of the evolution so far is that as he's come in, we're continuing to give him more and more, and he's showing no frustration about it when he makes mistakes," Beilein said. "He's allowing himself to become a better player because he's a great listener."
The only conclusion the Wolverines can draw as they surge into Big Ten play with a ton of momentum is that they might have crept into Ohio and swiped the top point guard in the state. Even with Sullinger on the same court as a high-schooler, Burke must have been an awfully sweet sounding second fiddle.
--Sophomore G Tim Hardaway Jr. has been a potent second-half scorer for the Wolverines this season, reaching double figures in output in the second half of six games, while doing so in the first half just twice. Against Duke, Hardaway went scoreless in the first half but exploded for 19 points in the second half.
--G Stu Douglass has been a steady and reliable contributor for the Wolverines in his four years in Ann Arbor. Douglass has not missed a game in his career, playing in 115 straight with his appearance against Penn State in the Big Ten opener. He is closing in on the Michigan record of 135 games played, set by Loy Vaught from 1986-90.
--G Zack Novak has returned to his natural two-guard position, due to the way sophomore F Evan Smotrycz has burst onto the scene as a potent offensive option. With Smotrycz posting three double-doubles this season, Novak has taken advantage of the more comfortable role out front and heading into Big Ten play he was averaging a productive 8.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists and was shooting 50 percent from the field.
BY THE NUMBERS: 41 -- Michigan had 30 or more rebounds in 10 of its first 12 games, including a season-best 41 rebounds in a win over Alabama A&M.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Sometimes less is so much more for him by just letting the game come to him, that way he doesn't press. I always feel the game is at both ends. When his offense is better, his defense is better and he'll play smarter. He's one of my guys that I call 'grenade guys' -- it's like the ball is a grenade and they have to do something with it or it's going to blow up. He's handling that grenade much better now." -- Michigan coach John Beilein on the improved scoring of F Evan Smotrycz.
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--at Indiana, Jan. 5
KEY MATCHUPS: Michigan is able to compensate for its lack of a true center most nights, using versatility and athleticism. When the Wolverines face the Hoosiers and freshman C Cody Zeller, that ability will be tested. Michigan sophomore F Jordan Morgan will have his hands full with the physical Zeller, but the most dangerous Hoosier is likely 6-9 F Christian Watford, who had 26 points and 10 rebounds in a recent Indiana loss to Michigan State. Michigan's defense on this duo will be a key indicator of how successful the Wolverines are in this Big Ten bout.
--vs. Wisconsin, Jan. 8
KEY MATCHUPS: The Badgers are strong in the backcourt with senior G Jordan Taylor providing one of the toughest physical matchups in the Big Ten. If freshman PG Trey Burke gets the assignment on Taylor, expect Burke's offense to suffer due to the demands of shadowing Taylor. Wisconsin G/F Ryan Evans benefits from all the attention Taylor demands, so Michigan's G Zack Novak will need to help on Taylor but not give Evans much room. Evans had 22 points in the Badgers' Big Ten opening win over Nebraska.
--F Jon Horford has missed at least three games with a foot injury that has been diagnosed as a stress fracture and he could be lost for the season. Michigan head coach John Beilein was pretty glum about the prospects for getting Horford healthy for the Big Ten run. "The plan is for next week to have one close look at it to see if there is progress, but we don't expect any," Beilein said.
--G Jordan Dumars left the program before the start of the season, giving up after a series of nagging knee injuries cost him nearly two years of playing time. Dumars, the son of former NBA All-Star Joe Dumars, joined the Michigan team as a walk-on after starting his career at South Florida. Dumars never played in a game at Michigan and would likely have been lodged deep in the playing rotation this season.
--G Zack Novak is a rare third-year captain at Michigan. Two years ago Novak was just the second sophomore to be named captain. He becomes only the second Wolverine to serve in that role for three seasons.
--G Eso Akunne has come off the bench throughout the first two months of the season and provided Michigan with productive minutes. Replacing either PG Trey Burke or G Stu Douglass, Akunne started the season making seven of his first eight shots from the field.
The Wolverines landed a real prize when they got a solid commitment from 6-6 F Tre Robinson from Indiana. Not only did Michigan grab one of the top 50 high school players in the country for next year, but the Wolverines also secured the son of former Purdue All-American and NBA All Star Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson. Purdue was long thought to have the wide, inside track on the younger Robinson, but he's headed to Ann Arbor where his versatility plays right into the Wolverines' approach on the perimeter.
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