Even Kanye Would Agree … Trey Burke is College Basketball’s Player of the Year

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.

Photo by Rafael Suanes/US PRESSWIRE via foxsportsdetroit.com

Photo by Rafael Suanes/US PRESSWIRE via foxsportsdetroit.com

The Measurables

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.

Digging Deeper

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).

The Differentiator

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).

Photo by JULIAN H. GONZALEZ / DFP via freep.com

Photo by JULIAN H. GONZALEZ / DFP via freep.com

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.

Photo via tasteofcountry.com

Photo via tasteofcountry.com

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.


Follow me on Twitter @keithmullett



About Keith Mullett

Keith is an Ohio-based sports and pop culture junkie who began writing for MSF in June 2011. His ramblings about sports, music, movies and books can be further enjoyed by following him on Twitter @keithmullett.

In addition to his work for MSF, Keith operates a blog called Commercial Grade, in which he critiques television commercials from the perspective of the average viewer.


  1. AJ Kaufman says:

    Doug MdDermott is POY. I don’t think it’s even close.

  2. Look at Victor Oladipo’s shooting percentage, dwarfing Burke’s… Top tier in FG% and 3pt%. His steals per game is almost 50% higher than Burke! His missed dunks are ESPN highlights. He shuts down other team’s guards AND forwards. Its not even close who is the National PoY… Victor Oladipo

    By the way, scoreboard

    • AJ Kaufman says:

      Pete, as many flaws as Keith’s arguments have, yours are insane. Burke takes much tougher shots, Oladipo gets a lot of layups and dunks. And who besides an 8-year-old kid cares about dunks? Oladipo has been NON EXISTENT in the last few games while Burke, though taking bad shots and shooting a low %, scores at least. Vcitor: 10 PPG, low shooting percentage. Not even the best player on his own team. He’s not even one of the 10 best offensive players of the year, though all-around, he’s probably top 5. Don’t let Dick Vitale and Magic Johnson’s junevile MJ comparisons from a Feb. game brainwash you. You’re wiser than those two bozos. No one outside of the Midwest knew who Victor was on Jan. 1, and while he may be a good pro and is a very smart guy, he’s not the best player in America. Not even close. Stop the hype. Doug McDermott has been consistently awesome the past 2 years. If we had a media not full of bigots who won’t vote for a white player, or who atched something besides Big Ten/Big East/ACC, it’d be unanimous. Instead we have ESPN.

      • Keith Mullett says:

        Of the last 8 Naismith Award winners, four have been white, one bi-racial, and three black. Your pulling of the race card is not the best way to make your argument here.

        Had Doug McDermott played against good teams as consistently as Burke, Oladipo, and Zeller, maybe I’d give him consideration.

        Also, the bit about Beilein not being a good in-game adjuster actually strengthens my argument. Burke’s ability to score, distribute, and lead his team to a top-10 finish, while playing in the toughest conference in the nation, is even more impressive given the lack of help he is given by his coach and supporting cast. Michigan may be more talented than Creighton, but that’s meaningless when your best players stand in the corner alone all game because they can’t create their own shots. Burke carries as heavy a load as any player in college basketball, and excels doing it.

        I know you hate ESPN, big schools, big-name players, professional football, and everything else that most sports fans enjoy – you’ve hammered those points home relentlessly since I’ve joined MSF – but I think you’re allowing your own biases to cloud your judgement.

        Trey Burke is a better BASKETBALL PLAYER than Doug McDermott. Hands down. It will be proven when the NBA draft comes, and it will be reiterated when Burke becomes an All-Star point guard in the NBA, while McDermott’s ceiling is something like a Ryan Anderson, only 2-3 inches shorter.

  3. AJ Kaufman says:

    And in addition to McDermott being national POY (hopefully you’ve watched him all season but I doubt it), Burke and Oladipo aren’t even the best in the Big Ten this season. Deshaun Thomas is. This article has some nice stats, but the Buckeyes have no one else averaging double digits, so Thoams has carried the team. Oladipo has Zeller and other all-Americans. Got hot for a few weeks. Burke has a lot more around him. Tired of lauding coaches and players with awesome talent around them. Look for coaches and players who are the most valuable and do it with little help. Surely not Victor or Burke (they both have disappeared late in games too) or guys like Tom Crean or John Beilein, who continuously get outcoached late in games.

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