|By planning ahead, John Beilein winds up with a stellar point guard at just the right time. (US Presswire)|
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- The move wasn't made necessarily due to the fact that John Beilein anticipated an early departure from starting point guard Darius Morris.
"As I was evolving as a coach, I realized how important the point guard position was," Michigan's veteran head coach said.
So he added one. An insurance policy.
Wolverines senior leader Zack Novak remembers the phone call from Beilein. It came shortly after the team returned from a trip to Europe, one in which Michigan struggled.
We've got a recruit. Meet him at a local Ann Arbor restaurant. Noodles.
It was an unofficial visit, which meant Novak had to reach in his own pocket for his portion of the bill.
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"I wasn't all that happy about it at the time, but it's part of my job," Novak said. "Paying for that meal was the best thing I did."
Trey Burke has made everyone forget about Morris -- who bolted after a sophomore season in which he led the Big Ten in assists.
Burke might not boast the size of the 6-foot-4 Morris (he claims he's 6 feet, but he's listed at 5-foot-11), but he's a superior shooter, doesn't take plays off on the defensive end and has the potential to be a big-time leader.
All in all, he makes Michigan a more dangerous basketball team.
This is a kid who has always been known as Jared Sullinger's high school teammate, one recruited primarily by mid-major programs. Now he's carving out quite the identity for himself and his teammates these days. He went for 20 points in Tuesday night's 60-59 victory against rival Michigan State.
Ohio State showed miniscule interest back in the day, according to Burke, and it was likely only to improve its position with his stud teammate.
Burke actually gave Penn State's Ed DeChellis a verbal commitment back when he was a sophomore, but he opted to de-commit and was on the verge of pledging to Cincinnati before his father helped persuade him that Michigan might be the ideal spot.
"He knew the system would be perfect for my game. It's a point guard's dream," Burke said. "And he had heard that Darius might leave early."
That's exactly what happened following last season -- and Novak was concerned. This was his final rodeo and Michigan immediately went from a team that many felt could contend for a Final Four to one that some didn't even have in the Top 25. Novak had confidence in his buddy and fellow senior Stu Douglass, but he knew the Wolverines needed more.
"I knew pretty quick in the summer," Novak said. "Trey was doing things right away that it had taken me four years to pick up. He has such a high skill level -- and you can tell he wasn't fazed by anything."
But everyone else, those who had yet to see Burke play, were concerned. Morris, on the surface, was the star of last year's team -- the one that came within inches of knocking Duke off in the NCAA tournament. Without him, this team had no shot of doing anything in the Big Dance.
"I heard it all summer, leading up to the season," Burke admitted. "I'd see the tweets and hear people talking about it."
Burke wrestled the starting job after only a single game. Now he has turned into arguably the team's top player on a team that has plenty of weapons, but no true superstar.
Since he moved into the starting lineup, he has been in double-figures 17 times in 18 games. But this game was different: Michigan and Michigan State in Ann Arbor with the country watching.
The last person on his team that Novak was worried about? Burke.
"Not at all," Novak said. "He makes me feel better. He calms me down."
While the majority of Tom Izzo's newcomers struggled in their first matchup against Michigan, Burke thrived. He scored the ball when necessary, set up his teammates and also did a terrific job on the defensive end. While he was containing Keith Appling and Travis Trice, it was Novak who was once again shutting down Spartans star Draymond Green. In the past five matchups against the Wolverines, Green has managed a total of 35 points.
Michigan took a 60-59 lead on Burke's pass to Douglass with 36.5 seconds remaining. On the final possession, it was the Wolverines defense that thwarted several Spartans attempts.
Every victory is important for this Michigan team, which is still trying to methodically earn national respect and climb in the Big Ten pecking order, but this one was far more significant.
"We have so much respect for Michigan State," Beilein said.
"For the first time, we're starting to see a shift," Novak added.
Thanks, in large part, to the shift from Morris to Burke.