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March 7, 2013Just watching a season's worth of Big Ten basketball is exhausting - one can only imagine what it might be like to go through a season in a Michigan uniform (No. 3, specifically) with the responsibility of knowing the your team's fortunes will likely be determined by how you fare.
Sophomore point guard Trey Burke shoulders that load game in, game out. He's scored 15 or more points in 17 straight conference games now - one more and he'll be the first Big Ten player in history to do it for an entire season - and while he's had his bumps in the road, he's usually met the challenge.
He took it to new heights in Wednesday night's 80-75 win at Purdue. He was missing his extra gear for 30 minutes, and Michigan fell behind by 12 as a result. It was around that time that one of the Boilermakers said something to fire him up, and Burke put on his cape one more time.
The turning point came with the Wolverines down a dozen. Purdue freshman A.J. Hammons missed an easy half-hook on one end, Burke responded with a triple on the other and, minutes later, the Wolverines were back within striking distance.
More importantly, Burke (26 points) had that "we on" look in his eye, the one he gets when he's about to put on a show.
"I sensed at the beginning of the game he had a little trouble getting the ball - he waved off and Tim [Hardaway] ended up bringing the ball up and I thought, 'wait a minute,'" head coach Beilein said. "The 38 minutes he played at MSU - that was an emotional, tough game. For us to bounce back in two days - Purdue had the same, but for the point guards it's really hard.
"As the game went on and it came down to crunch time, he was excellent. They did a great job of keeping him from getting the ball in the start of that second half. That threw us for a loop, and we had to get used to that, as well. Once we made some adjustments, we were much better at scoring."
Michigan scored 40 points in the last 11 minutes. Burke scored 21 of them, adding three assists. If it was his last true road game in a Michigan uniform, as many believe, he made it a night to remember.
Purdue writers have seen their share of outstanding talent in West Lafayette, but even they were throwing out words like "special" to describe the 5-11 standout. Some questioned at the beginning of the season whether Burke deserved mention among the best point guards in Michigan history. There's no longer much, if any, doubt.
"As I talk with him at different times, he knows what we're talking about," Beilein said. "We went to one of our high ball screen packages, gave him something sketchy to do. We said, 'we want you to keep the ball in the middle of the floor, read what side Nik is on, what side Tim is on, then attack.'"
Then, Beilein said, they released him on the Boilermakers.
"That's the way you have to coach him," Beilein said. "He's so good with his instincts. The way they were playing the ball screen, you have to have a good middle game. He has a very good middle game. He hit a few floaters, then went to the foul line and nailed it for us - he's running the show for us, taking care of us. I know every day he'll play as hard and as smart as he can."
Many have done the program proud in that respect over the years. Few, though, have done it like Burke. He'd secure a second straight Big Ten title should the Wolverines beat Indiana Sunday, and in doing so become one of the few to ever win consecutive titles in Ann Arbor.
He's already secured his legacy, though, as one of the best to ever play in maize and blue.
"One of the keys of winning on the road was at least get off to a good start," Beilein said. "I thought we really played well in the first half. We missed a ton of easy shots that I guess is just all part of the game."
Purdue seized control in the second by throwing a different look at the Wolverines.
"We did not expect what we saw in the first five to 10 minutes of the second half," Beilein said. "They did a coverage on us on the ball screen that blew us apart a little bit. Once we regrouped, we became much better at what we had to do."
The key, though, was sticking together. Nobody pointed fingers, and when senior Matt Vogrich came off the bench to hit a key triple, they started to rally around each other.
"I applaud my coaching staff, my team for staying united, helping everybody get through that," Beilein said. "We had some guys come up big today. Really big."
That included freshman Nik Stauskas (17 points), who responded with his best game in weeks. Stauskas wasn't perfect defensively, but the effort was solid. He also provided daggers down the stretch and was more aggressive in taking the ball to the rim, by design.
That aspect of his game - an underrated one - had been missing the last several weeks.
"Tim's in foul trouble, so we had to play through him a little more," Beilein said. "The way they were guarding us, there were things they shut right down from us and we had to go with a different package than what we had planned in the second half. We decided to play more through Nik, and Nik really responded."
"To be in position - there are going to be a couple teams like this. Whoever plays the best on this last weekend is going to have a championship. There are seven really good teams in this league, and Iowa and Purdue are right there, too -
"Whoever plays the best on this last weekend is going to have a championship. That's the way it should end."