ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- When Trey Burke started his high school career at Northland in Columbus, Ohio,, he wanted to go to Ohio State. His best friend, Jared Sullinger, was heading there. The Buckeyes were also in on another of his teammates.
Ohio State never showed much interest.
When Michigan's freshman point guard returns to Columbus this weekend to face the Buckeyes for the first time -- and to play against Sullinger in an actual game for the first time -- there is an obvious question: How did he not end up at Ohio State? How did the 5-foot-11 point guard who might end up being the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and is in the running for National Freshman of the Year end up at an emerging program instead of an established power?
"When Jared committed there they started showing interest in J.D. (Weatherspoon), it kind of pulled me toward them, and I started to like them more and more," Burke said. "They weren't really recruiting me like that. They'd send me mail and I'd go to recruiting games and football games and things like that, but they never really forced the issue to recruit me or offer me a scholarship."
There are many reasons why Burke ended up at Michigan -- and how and why the nation's elite programs never offered him a scholarship.
Burke took himself off the market early
Burke wanted to play in the Big Ten. Save for a year living in Atlanta in middle school, he had spent his life in Columbus.
When his first Big Ten offer came from Penn State in 2009 before his junior season, he accepted. In doing that, Penn State's coaches thought they were nabbing a steal and Burke would fulfill his hope of playing in the Big Ten.
It also removed his name from consideration for other schools.
"That took him off the board for a long time," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "We weren't aware of him a great deal before he committed orally."
It would be almost a year before many other teams were aware of Burke. At the time, Penn State saw him as a replacement for Talor Battle, one of the Big Ten's best guards last season.
The Nittany Lions could pair him with Tim Frazier in the backcourt -- a situation that would have formed one of the most dynamic guard pairings in the league.
"I didn't think he would be like Talor," said former Penn State assistant Lewis Preston, now the head coach at Kennesaw State and the Nittany Lions' lead recruiter on Burke. "I thought he could score better at that point in time. The one thing, you go back and look at Talor's career, he scored a lot on penetration and attacking and Trey has done that.
"But Trey can play off penetration and kick, can pull up for the short J, can do a variety of different things."
After the 2009-10 season, though, Penn State struggled. The Nittany Lions went 11-20. Rumors flew that the coaching staff would be in a win-or-be-canned situation the next season. At the same time, Burke led Northland to a state championship as a junior in Sullinger's senior season there.
On May 25, 2010, on his way to a summer basketball tournament in Los Angeles, Burke called Penn State's coaches and decommited.
On the market, but was it too late
When Burke opened his recruitment, most of the Big Ten schools had other focuses. Ohio State had a commitment from Shannon Scott. So the Buckeyes were out.
"He committed to Penn State at a real young age and then, I'm not exactly sure why, he ended up committing to Michigan," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "We already had gotten a commitment at that point."
Plus, Ohio State already had its own dynamic point guard in Aaron Craft -- now one of the Big Ten's top defenders and the man attempting to stop Burke on Sunday.
Other top schools had also already locked into other point guards. Even Michigan didn't jump immediately. The Wolverines were coming off their own disappointing season -- one that started with a Top 25 ranking and ended with a sub-.500 record.
But they already had a point guard in then-freshman Darius Morris and a verbal commitment from combo guard Carlton Brundidge, who could handle point guard responsibilities.
Meanwhile, Burke picked up offers or major interest from BCS programs such as Providence, USC, Nebraska, Miami, Florida State, Oklahoma State, Iowa and Cincinnati. West Virginia showed interest late.
"Once I committed to Penn State, the other schools that recruited me backed off a bit," Burke said. "It was a verbal commit, so it wasn't like I was going to for sure stay for good. I was planning on going to Penn State at the time but once I decommitted, more schools started recruiting me during the summertime.
"In July, a lot of schools came out to watch me play on the AAU circuit."
Still, Michigan wasn't pursuing him. The Wolverines revamped their coaching staff, firing John Mahoney and Jerry Dunn. Mike Jackson left for Purdue. Beilein promoted director of basketball operations Jeff Meyer to a full-time assistant's role and hired two young coaches: Bacari Alexander and LaVall Jordan.
Throughout July, those coaches saw Burke and urged Beilein to look. At an Orlando AAU tournament in July, he finally did. He watched Burke for a half.
Still, Beilein wasn't convinced Michigan needed a point guard. He watched film of Burke and offered in mid-August, before the Wolverines went on a four-game European tour. He wrestled between committing to Michigan or Cincinnati, which recruited him hard and developed a good relationship with the Burke family.
Eventually, Burke committed to Michigan on Aug. 24, 2010 -- while the Wolverines were overseas.
It ended up being a decision that could lead to a final push for Michigan up to college basketball's elite and part of the final decision was that he would get to come back to Columbus -- and play against Ohio State.
"Once I got here to Michigan, I saw that this was the best decision for me and the best place for me to be," Burke said. "So I took it and I knew I had a chance to play against them."
But did anyone expect this?
After committing to Michigan, Burke kept improving. He led Northland, minus Sullinger, to the Ohio state championship game. He won the state's Mr. Basketball -- beating out the player Penn State signed to replace him, Trey Lewis.
Still, no one could have predicted Burke would have been this good this soon.
"I expected it probably his sophomore going into his junior year," Preston said. "One of the things about Trey, when I was initially recruiting him, he's very calm and cool. Nothing ever really fazes him. Sometimes he looks like he's too nonchalant a little bit. He had this quiet cool about him where he can go in and he's a quiet assassin. He can make shots.
"He happened to play with the best big guy in the country at the time so he got to learn how to play inside-out. But did I expect him to be able to come in and run an offense and do what he has done this year? No."
In hindsight, his decision to decommit was smart. Preston got his first head coaching job in the offseason. DeChellis and his staff left Penn State for Navy.
Morris departed for the NBA and the offer Beilein wasn't initially sure he wanted to give out ended up being the one of the most important ones he has ever made.
Burke has left other schools wondering how they ended up not looking at one of the best young point guards in the country.
"You knew the potential was there to do it," Preston said. "It was the matter of being in the right situation and probably, to be honest with you, the situation he is in now with Michigan is probably the perfect situation for him."
Perfect for Burke, and perfect for Michigan.
Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mikerothstein.