This college basketball season has been like few others in my lifetime.
There has been a constant carousel at the top of the rankings, and there has been no clear-cut, consensus favorite for best team or player in the country.
In a year like this, it’s easy for a bunch of teams and players to split the vote, opening the door for a team like Gonzaga to sit atop the polls entering conference tourney play.
I’m not sure who the best team is; I think all of the contenders are flawed and that this year’s champion will be a team who gets hottest for a few games and catches a break or two along the way.
As for the best player in men’s college basketball? I do know the answer to that one: Michigan’s Trey Burke.
Anyone can pull up Burke’s season stats and see that he has been a spectacular scorer and playmaker this year for the Wolverines (26-6, 12-6 Big Ten). Even without watching a single game, one would draw the obvious conclusion that the 6’0″ sophomore point guard belongs in the conversation.
In case you’re not familiar with Burke’s statistical body of work, here you go:
Trey Burke per game averages: 19.2 points, 6.7 assists, 3.2 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 2.0 turnovers, 48.5% FG, 40.3% 3PFG, 79% FT.
Those numbers jump off the page.
Consider that the Wolverines have been a title contender all season (albeit an inconsistent, frustrating one), and that Burke is their unquestioned leader, and it’s easy to understand why he walked away with the Big Ten Player of the Year award.
So often, the deciding factor between two (or more, as is the case this year) players is their performance in big games. Burke has been fantastic in almost every game this year, scoring in double figures in all 32 Michigan games and scoring 20 or more 13 times.
In particular, it has been interesting to see Burke’s performance in Michigan’s losses.
In the Wolverines’ six losses, Burke has averaged 19.2 points per game, 5 assists, and 2 steals. His turnovers are up (3.3) and his shooting is down (40%) in losses, but Michigan as a whole has only shot 42% in their losses (40% if you exclude the freaky Penn State loss in which they were 30 for 58 and still managed to hand the Nittany Lions the game).
To put that in perspective, one of Burke’s main foes in the PoY race, Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, averaged 12 points and 4.8 rebounds in Indiana’s losses this year, down from his averages of 13.7 and 6.2, respectively. I understand that Oladipo’s calling card is leadership and defense, but it’s worth noting that his performances weren’t as spectacular in those adverse conditions, either.
How about against the tough competition? There is some overlap with the losses, but consider the following:
Against teams that were ranked at the time they played, Burke averaged 18.9 points, 7 assists, and only 2.2 turnovers.
All of this, and he played in the toughest conference in the nation with a particularly unforgiving conference schedule (a 10-day stretch with games at Indiana, home to Ohio State, at Wisconsin, and at Michigan State comes to mind).
Where Burke’s brilliance becomes obvious is in watching Michigan games and seeing his total effect on the team on both ends of the floor.
Allow me to indulge in a little basketball nerdery here, as I break down Michigan’s game plan, Burke’s role, and where his dominance makes up for the team’s inherent flaws.
When Michigan coach John Beilein arrived in Ann Arbor, his primary game plan was to run a 1-3-1 zone on defense and spread the floor with four capable long-ball shooters, with one big, typically unskilled big crowding the paint.
This tactic was useful, because at the time, Michigan didn’t have the elite players needed to compete with some of the better teams in the country. By running that confusing zone, opponents were forced into poor shots, and Michigan ran a methodical offense that placed emphasis on off-ball screens and open threes.
It worked, but there was a ceiling, as quality teams could bully the Wolverines around, and if Michigan had an off night from deep, they had no backup plan.
Now, as Burke, Tim Hardaway, Glen Robinson, Nik Stauskas and others have joined the team, Beilein has the talent – especially offensively – to do more, and this comes in the form of a fast break-heavy attack while scrapping the zone and playing straight man-to-man on defense.
Burke is the catalyst, obviously.
Everything Michigan does on offense is predicated on his ability to break down defenses and make the correct decision with the ball. His turnover rate is astoundingly low given the amount of time he is forced to create Michigan’s entire offense.
When things are going well for the Wolverines, Burke reads the defense, probing and penetrating, and either takes a quality shot or provides a cutter or corner shooter a setup for a high-percentage shot.
This next part is why he is the best player in the nation. What happens when things aren’t going well?
Michigan’s trouble, this year, has stemmed from breakdowns on the other end of the floor. Defensively, Burke is also the leader of the team. He is a very good on-ball defender with quick hands (just ask the Spartans). The rest of the Wolverines range from mediocre (Hardaway), to raw and out of control (freshman Mitch McGary), to just plain bad (Stauskas).
What happens, specifically, is when Michigan plays man, players not named Trey Burke get beaten in their individual matchups often. This forces rotations – another weakness of this particularly young team – which creates open threes and back door cuts. It also takes Michigan’s bigs out of defensive rebounding position, something Indiana’s Cody Zeller exploited to almost comical degrees in Bloomington back in February.
When Michigan does dust off the 1-3-1, it is usually to stem the tide and improve rebounding. It does both of those things, but it limits their ability to get out and run on offense. This allows opposing defenses to get set in proper position to defend Beilein’s expertly crafted plays.
When defenses clamp down on the corners and play physical with Michigan’s rather slight wing players, those easy passing lanes aren’t there. The offense slows to the crawling pace for which the Big Ten is often maligned.
In these situations, Burke becomes a one-man show. He forces some shots, but he is still able to score efficiently, at least relative to the other options on the floor. Burke has an exceptional step-back jumpshot, which bails him out of a lot of possessions in which there is little movement by any of Michigan’s other options. He’s a fantastic finisher as well, and gets to the free throw line often, where he is a solid shooter.
In a way, Michigan’s shortcomings highlight Burke’s various abilities. I can’t imagine what their shooting numbers and offensive efficiency statistics would be like with another point guard running the team.
The Kanye West VMA Argument
Phew. Things got a little X and O-heavy there, huh?
My last point is a little tongue-in-cheek, but it does make a certain amount of sense.
Remember when Kanye West stormed the MTV Video Music Awards stage to ambush Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video? He argued for Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” which would go on to win Video of the Year.
Well, I don’t think it was the wisest way to express himself, but it turns out he was sort of right: how could Swift beat the best video of the year in another category? Wouldn’t the BEST video of the year, provided it is performed by a female, also be the best female video?
In a similar vein, how could Burke be the Big Ten Player of the Year and not the Naismith Award winner, provided his primary competition are also Big Ten players? It does not compute.
Trey Burke is the best player in college basketball this year. The stats support it, the eye test supports it, his effect on his team supports it, and Kanye West supports it.