Burke sails into uncharted waters
Great frosh PGs of the past offer tournament advice to Michigan standout
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- All season long, Michigan point guard Trey Burke has handled pressure well. Starting almost every game this season? No problem. Being asked to play almost every minute, lead the team in scoring and assists? He has done that, too.
But this is different.
The NCAA tournament.
"The intensity level goes up. What you've been doing the whole year has been great, you've been playing well with your team the whole time, but when you get to tournament time, the level of competition goes up tremendously,'" said former North Carolina point guard Derrick Phelps, who reached the Final Four as a freshman in 1991 and is now an assistant coach at Monmouth. "As a freshman, you're sometimes not used to that intensity level going from what you've played at that whole year. Going into the tournament it's like, 'Boom.' It rises up to another level."
Historically, teams with freshman point guards haven't had massive success in the NCAA tournament. Only four times since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams have two teams with a freshman running the point advanced to the Elite Eight or better in the same season.
Over the past decade-plus, most seasons have had at least one team in the Elite Eight with a freshman point guard -- from North Carolina and Kendall Marshall last season, to Ohio State in 2007 with Mike Conley Jr., all the way back to 1999 with St. John's and Erick Barkley and 1998 with Khalid El-Amin and Connecticut. In 1991, Phelps came off the bench but played starters' minutes.
It takes a special guard to be able to do that -- and often a team with experienced guys surrounding that player. Only one team -- the Fab Five with Jalen Rose at the point -- has made a long tournament run with no upperclassmen starting. Having older players surrounding a freshman point guard is critical, because he can focus more on just playing without having to carry a team.
Some players -- such as Derrick Rose from Memphis and Kenny Anderson from Georgia Tech, both of whom took their teams to the Final Four -- can handle it.
Most need some help.
"I was lucky to have great teammates and guys," said former Duke point guard Bobby Hurley, who took his team to the NCAA championship game as a freshman in 1990. "I didn't have to be a frontline player on the team. I just had to do statistically what I had been doing all year, have really good assist numbers and take care of the basketball for the most part, and here and there look for my own offense. But I didn't need to be the guy."
Burke needs to be more like Anderson and Rose, though, if the Wolverines are to make a big run over the next three weeks. Michigan is one of two teams among the top four seeds in each of the four regions with freshmen at point guard, joining Kentucky and Marquis Teague.
Teague, though, isn't nearly the focal point of the offense that Burke is for Michigan.
Michigan's seniors, Zack Novak and Stu Douglass, said they didn't plan on saying anything to prep Burke for what to expect in the tournament, but freshman point guards who have been through it before offered advice for what to expect.
Play to your strengths and do what you've always done. You're still playing basketball. It's just a little bigger stakes.” -- Former UConn PG Khalid El-Amin
"Soak in the atmosphere," said El-Amin from Croatia, where he is playing professionally. "Get in there and really see how the speed of the game is. Understand what's at stake. It's just one game, and you only get one game, so you have to be ready, so make sure each player is mentally prepared for that.
"Play to your strengths and do what you've always done. You're still playing basketball. It's just a little bigger stakes in the NCAA tournament."
El-Amin went out and watched the game before Connecticut played Fairleigh Dickinson in the first round of the 1998 NCAA tournament. He had his teammates join him, and he said just watching gave him a better sense of what to expect.
The Huskies needed it. FDU's Elijah Allen scored 43 points, and Connecticut barely beat the Knights, 93-85, with El-Amin scoring 28.
"If we didn't soak in the atmosphere before the game we would have probably ended up losing," El-Amin said.
Phelps and Hurley both said not forcing things would be the biggest advice they would give. They said to focus on doing the same things that the player did throughout the year, not to all of a sudden make an adjustment because of the venue.
And there is more pressure.
By this point, though, most point guards in this position have played 30-plus games, so they have an idea of what to expect. That, according to Ohio State coach Thad Matta, was part of what helped Conley in the Buckeyes' run to the national championship game in 2007 and Aaron Craft last season.
"For most systems in college basketball, there is a lot riding on the point guard, and you hope through the course of the season they are capable of having a better understanding," Matta said. "For our guys, playing in the Big Ten they played in incredible environments with great competition and are probably a little bit more seasoned for it."
Another thread of comparison connecting the point guards who have made runs has been the competition they faced before they arrived in college. Anderson, Phelps, Hurley, Barkley and North Carolina's Ed Cota all played in the extremely tough New York City/New Jersey area.
Conley Jr. and Rose played a national schedule in high school against elite talent, along with traveling nationally for AAU events.
This pedigree helps.
"It's the kind of schedule they not only have played but have won in," said Florida Atlantic head coach Mike Jarvis, who coached Barkley during his NCAA run. "To play against the best players, anybody can do that, but to beat the best players, not everybody can do that.
"To play, as Erick did, with a defensive mindset, and then an offensive mindset that is more about winning than stats, which is in itself a rarity today."
Jarvis pointed to the maturity of Barkley's game as a reason for his team's success, as well -- saying he was the final piece on a team that included Ron Artest and Bootsy Thornton.
Hurley, Phelps and El-Amin said having the confidence of their coaches was critical. It made them believe in themselves and push down any nerves or concerns they might have had.
"It's huge," Hurley said. "I gained so much confidence from the composure that Coach K had with me and the trust he had with me. I knew that he believed in me and that I can make plays and I would do the things necessary to help the team win.
"When you really have that and believe it from your coach, it definitely makes you play better."
Or, as El-Amin put it: "He gives you the ball and trusts you to make the right play, come on, man. That's the best feeling in the world."
There is one other thing to consider. Freshman point guards rarely have won titles. Only three schools -- Arizona in 1997 (Mike Bibby), Duke in 2001 (Chris Duhon), and Syracuse in 2003 (Gerry McNamara) -- have won national championships with freshmen at the point.
But many of the point guards who made big runs as freshmen, including Phelps, Hurley, Tyus Edney from UCLA, El-Amin and North Carolina's Ty Lawson, eventually won national titles before they left school.
So if Michigan makes a run, Burke will be among elite college company.
"Growing up, this is everybody's dream," Burke said.
By Friday, he won't be dreaming anymore, and if Michigan is to do well in this season's NCAA tournament, he'll have to remember how he got here in the first place.