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Monday, March 4, 2013
Updated: March 6, 8:05 AM ET
The No. 1 that got away

By Elena Bergeron
ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 18 One Day One Game issue. Subscribe today!

EVERYTHING HINGES ON what Trey Burke sees. There's so much footage floating around in his mind -- hours of film from the coaching staff, splices of Chris Paul or Rajon Rondo highlights he wants to replicate -- that the night before any game, Burke has to stop, clear out his mental queue and come up with a reel all his own.

He'll head to his bedroom and scan YouTube for "meditation music," then close his eyes and imagine his teammates' faces, picture himself breaking the huddle. Now calling out a defensive switch. Now seeing his bench smiling, and running to the sideline because the opponent has called a timeout to stop a Michigan run. "I'll visualize the crowds, the teams, the noises," he says. Burke will play out scenes like that for 30 to 45 minutes before he finishes the exercise the same way, seeing himself mouth the words "Hail to the Victors."

He has made good on his visions. His 3.9 assists-to-turnover ratio was tops in the nation through Feb. 25, and not since Magic Johnson has a Big Ten point guard put up 18 points and seven assists per game. It's universally accepted that the Wolverines sophomore is the best point guard in the country.

His play this season, if not over his entire career, has been sparked by a crystalline vision of himself. It's a real and often real-time assessment of who he is and isn't as a player, with a detailed view of what he could be. Burke is more than just a reveler in a dream state. He's a hoop-head with a sense of self that is both brutally honest and surprisingly mature.

Last year, for instance, Burke did not enter the NBA draft. Even as Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Year, he knew there were too many parts of his game to improve before he could face his idols. Plus, he foresaw something special in Ann Arbor. "I knew that we had the recruiting class, that we could potentially be where we are now," he says. "I knew that last year."

That Burke and the Wolverines have been this good (23-4 through Feb. 25), that they've willed themselves to impressive wins in the country's toughest conference, isn't surprising once you know Burke and how he imposes his pregame visions on reality -- even on an icy February night against an Ohio State team that has witnessed all his premonitions before.


THERE'S A STORY they tell in the Burke family. It's about the time when Trey was 6 and his sister Amber was almost 9 and she cheated in a game of duck-duck-goose, running through a ring of cousins to tag him. Trey cried into his grandpa's camcorder, ranting about the injustice on film, which only made him angrier because now the camera -- and history -- would have a record of the crime and the grown-ups' negligent response to it.

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Trey's dad, Benji (in striped jacket), his mom, Ronda (in white), and the rest of the Burke clan proudly display their new loyalty.

This fury reappeared whenever Trey's Biddy Ball teams -- coached by his dad but made up of neighborhood pals who didn't have Trey's intensity -- lost a game. "He would go crazy," says his father, Benji. Trey would stomp away crying, almost comically mad. (His older cousins torched young Trey in basketball games in their grandparents' driveway just so everyone could watch the boy pitch hilarious fits.) Trey didn't like to see himself that way, as someone who failed.

With time he focused his fury. After Burke's freshman year in high school, his summer league team in Columbus, Ohio, lost to a crosstown rival when one of its players, Darian Cartharn, hung 35 points on Trey's club. Afterward Burke and his dad heard that Cartharn had been working with a trainer who happened to be in the gym that night. They found the guy before he left and asked him to do a session with Trey on the spot. Trey needed to know -- he needed to see -- what made Cartharn so good.

The trainer, Anthony Rhodman, went to his car, came back with gear and had Burke dribbling balls while running over a chain ladder, with bands around his ankles and waist. This went on for 90 minutes. "I put him through a crazy workout to see how serious the kid was," Rhodman says. "I thought I killed the kid. He's asking me for more. He was so excited."

Burke loved the unorthodox drills so much that he made time for them within the schedule of his high school practices and AAU games, meeting with Rhodman as early as 5 a.m. before school or late on Sunday nights in the summer, after weekend tournaments.

The surprising thing was that nothing about that obsessive itinerary stood out in Burke's circle. He and Jared Sullinger, now a forward for the Celtics, have been best friends and more like brothers since they were 8 and 9, respectively, playing or talking hoops all the time. When they won a state title in Burke's sophomore year at Northland High, Sullinger's dad coached the team. Sullinger was a special player -- a top-five recruit since his freshman year.

Burke, however, was a 5'9", 135-pound flea. He was a year too young for Sullinger's AAU team, which featured a point guard from Findlay, Ohio, named Aaron Craft. Four of the five starters from that All-Ohio Red team eventually committed to Thad Matta and Ohio State. Matta's staff never really recruited Burke -- because it had Craft and picked up Georgia native Shannon Scott too. "They just looked at Trey as Jared's friend," Benji says.

That wasn't entirely without cause. Burke had a slow-blooming body and a speedy but earthbound game. He was lightly recruited before committing, and then de-committing, to Penn State in his junior year. The odd man out of the Ohio State group, Burke committed to Michigan the summer before his senior year at Northland, where Wolverines head coach John Beilein saw Burke score his 1,000th point while making almost clairvoyant passes.

Burke was later named Ohio's Mr. Basketball, just as Sullinger had been.


EVERYTHING HE DID in Ann Arbor last season was a continuation of Burke's planned progression: claiming the starting spot; averaging 20 points, four rebounds and five assists in his first week of Big Ten play; pushing the Wolverines to a top-10 ranking, their first in 14 years. Only when it came time to square up against the Ohio State team that snubbed him did Burke become more concerned with the Buckeyes' field of view than his own. "I was trying to prove to people that I should've been at Ohio State or that they should have at least given me a look," Burke says. He admittedly tried to prove too much. Michigan played Ohio State in the Big Ten tourney semifinals, both teams ranked in the top 10. Burke went 1-for-11 and committed eight turnovers thanks to Craft's swarming defense.

The game showed that there were still nights in the Big Ten when Burke could be knocked off his plan. So when he decided to return to school, Burke rededicated himself to perfect point guard play. "Last year I'd just come flying off a pick-and-roll; I wouldn't even look at the court before I came off," Burke says. "I learned, more than anything, to play at my own pace."

The six-foot, 190-pound Burke got stronger too, muscling up enough to keep a defender on his hip and still shoot a pass around him. He worked with position coach LaVall Jordan to figure out not just when to pass but how to deliver the ball to each teammate -- putting extra spin on balls to shooters, firing stronger to teammates who often slow down their shot.

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"We can work on something in shootaround, talk about something in film that morning, and that night he'll deliver. Most guys take a little longer to be able to own it," says position coach LaVall Jordan.

As the season opened, Jordan was impressed. "He just sees the game," Jordan says. "We can work on something in shootaround, talk about something in film that morning, and that night he'll deliver. Most guys take a little longer to be able to own it."

Burke emerged as a player-of-the-year candidate early this season, and the Wolverines were unbeaten through 16 games when they arrived in Columbus on Jan. 13. The matchup was unofficially dubbed Craft vs. Burke for good reason: Every time Michigan plays Ohio State, the games come down to which point guard can get the better of the other. Craft is the best on-ball defender in the country. Burke's drives and pinpoint passes spread the court. The guard who executes his vision wins the game.

So Burke pre-played that game in his head too. He saw himself running north-south to make plays. He sang the fight song. A win would give Michigan a 17-0 start, the best in school history.

But Craft wouldn't let Burke impose his version of reality. He pushed Burke into the help defender, forced Burke wide or down to the trap corners. Craft even denied Burke the use of the screens that Burke had spent the summer refining, the ones that now serve as the basis of Michigan's offense. Just 12 minutes into the game and down 20 points, Burke was haunted by a new vision. "In my mind I'm like, Please don't let this get to 30 or 40."

The Wolverines pulled back, Burke scraping his way to a 15-point, four-assist night with clutch threes. In the last ticks of the second half, down two, Burke had the chance to win it. With 20 seconds left, he took a jab step to his left, created a finger-length of separation from Craft and let loose the best-feeling J he'd shot all day. "It looked so good that I thought it wasn't going to hit any rim -- just go right in," Burke says. Only the ball got halfway down the cylinder and tornadoed out.

Afterward the tantrum-throwing kid seethed just under his skin, but it wasn't the miss that irked him. The way Burke had pictured the game, he saw himself making decisions based on what the defense allowed. Watching the game on his iPad on the return to Ann Arbor, Burke noticed how he looked past several reads that would've broken the game open long before that last three attempt. The kid with the omniscient view had played the game with tunnel vision.

Having seen enough from the film, Burke vowed that his next meeting with Craft wouldn't be a repeat: "I'm going to try to do what he does to me: Beat him with my feet, outthink him."


A FEW WEEKS LATER, in the practice before the February rematch, Beilein is not at all subtle in suggesting that the game will, once again, depend on who wins Burke vs. Craft. The coach stops an out-of-bounds play on the Crisler Center court to shout at freshman guard Caris LeVert, who's inbounding to Burke. "If all you have is a short pass, don't throw it," Beilein says. "Because what? Because they just trap it. Wait until Burke makes a cut or swings wide from Craft." Later, when they've broken into position drills, assistants walk the guards through different cuts the ballhandler can make if his defender denies him the screen, the way Craft does to Burke.

That night, Burke sees himself using those cuts to get by Craft. He's faster and can outrun him to spots on the floor. He waves to send his big man (and that man's defender) through the lane, making Craft defend him straight up instead of allowing Craft to steer him into the help.

That's pretty much how it unfolds on prime-time TV the next night. Burke has only five points by halftime, but he has controlled his team's offense, with two of his eventual eight assists and only one turnover, an improvement over the five-plus turnovers he averages against Craft. Michigan trails by as many as eight midway through the second, but Tim Hardaway Jr.'s five threes -- Burke assisting on two of them -- keep the Wolverines neck-and-neck with the Buckeyes. With 21 seconds left, Michigan has the ball with the score tied at 72. "Everybody," Hardaway will later say, "knows who the ball is going to."

Burke uses a screen to get the defensive switch he wants, shaking free of Craft, with only Deshaun Thomas standing in the way of a cinematic dagger. Burke's three launch clanks off the front iron. Overtime. Burke hits a three at the start of it, Michigan's only field goal of the overtime, and the rest of the period slows down, as if scripted to pit Burke vs. Craft in the closing seconds again. With 55 ticks left, Craft hits a driving layup and the Buckeyes trail 75-74. On the other end, Burke finds himself isolated against Craft with another chance to ice the game. Driving left, Burke creates space to shoot, but before he steps back for the jumper Craft gets a hand on the ball, swats it away and breaks for the other hoop. Burke chases him down and swipes the ball out of play. On the inbounds, Craft beats Burke around a screen and Burke senses that Craft will pull up -- "He slowed down, so I knew," Burke will later say -- and Burke swats the shot from behind out of bounds. The last possession, Burke slides Craft into the help defender, just as Craft had done in Columbus, and Hardaway blocks Craft's shot, sealing the Wolverines' win.

It didn't work out exactly as he'd envisioned, but Burke beat Craft the same way he made himself a prospect, and for the same reason he stayed in Ann Arbor this winter: By acting on what he'd seen before, anticipating what he'd see next and using those images to create a scene every Wolverines fan would remember.

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