The compliments were flying at Michigan’s Trey Burke from all directions Thursday. People telling him he is great. People telling him he is the best point guard in America.
Then, someone asked Burke if, after Friday’s NCAA South Regional semifinal against Kansas (6:37 p.m. on TBS), this will be the moment the entire country knows his name.
Burke smiled, tilted his head back into the TV lights and answered carefully.
“When I hear that I think, well that’s just really high praise,” Burke said. “I try not to listen to talk like that because I think it’s just too much. I think I want to capture the moment for what it is.”
The moment could define Burke’s time at Michigan if the 6-foot sophomore and Big Ten player of the year can take down the top-seeded Jayhawks by doing what he’s done all year — making big plays at the most opportune moments. A run to the Final Four could also hasten his exit to the NBA.
“(Burke) has had some great challenges this year and he’s fared really well, as well as could be expected,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “He’s only a sophomore, he’s only 20 years old and he’s learning by the moment but what a competitor he is. If he has that competition in front of him, it drives him to be the best.”
Burke, also a national player of the year candidate, leads the Wolverines with 18.8 points and 6.7 assists. Michigan hadn’t advanced to the Sweet 16 since 1994 before Sunday’s win over VCU at The Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich.
“Making it to the Final Four would mean everything to us,” Burke said. “It’s what we’ve talked about since our first practice.”
Early in the season, Burke bounced back from a scoreless first half with 10 points, five rebounds and four assists, leading Michigan to a win over Big 12 co-champion Kansas State in the NIT Season Tip-Off in New York. He had 18 points — all in the second half — and 11 assists in a win over No. 18 North Carolina State days later.
In the Big Ten season, Burke had one of the signature plays of the year when he stole the ball from Michigan State’s Keith Appling with the score tied 56-56 and only 25 seconds left, and took it in for the game-winning dunk. Burke then made another steal as time was running out.
On March 6, trailing Purdue by 12 with 12 minutes left in the game, Burke scored 22 of his 26 points in that span, lifting Michigan to a win.
Get the picture? The Jayhawks sure do.
“(Burke) is always in attack mode, always trying to get the defender on his heels,” Kansas guard Naadir Tharpe said. “You have to pick him up early because Michigan is so dangerous in transition with him running things.”
Several Kansas players could take turns guarding Burke — Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson, Ben McLemore and Tharpe will all likely get a shot.
“I think we’re all going to guard him,” McLemore said. “As a team, playing defense, we all need to be aware of what he’s doing.”
That’s something Burke has become accustomed to.
“He has seen everybody, all year,” Beilein said. “People have switched different people on him.”
Not that Burke has been perfect. He was suspended by Beilein for the season’s first exhibition game for a “violation of team standards,” and the Wolverines tied for fourth in the Big Ten.
He also had a season-high seven turnovers in Michigan’s win over VCU.
“This is definitely a great opportunity for us to play in a great arena and a really big stage,” Burke said. “It’s how you handle it mentally, how well you adapt to this atmosphere and this environment?”