20 years ago, the University of Michigan men’s basketball team was changing America’s cultural landscape, as the Fab Five – Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Chris Webber, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson – displayed hip-hop’s youthful, brazen, braggadocios attitude on a national stage. While critics openly expressed contempt about their influence – Nike sneakers, black socks, baggy shorts and bald heads, it resonates heavily throughout the game today. Since their departure from Ann Arbor, however, largely as a result of the booster scandal that took place then and in the succeeding years, Michigan basketball has essentially been irrelevant until recently.
With three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, the Wolverines have been headed in the right direction, but this is the year’s squad, U of M’s best since the Fab Five truly marks their return to being a national power. Off to a 15-0 start, the second-ranked Wolverines have assembled a great combination of size, talent, experience, athleticism and basketball IQ. Returnees Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Jordan Morgan have meshed nicely with freshmen Glenn Robinson Jr., Nick Stauskas and Mitch McGary, and sixth year head coach John Beilein has made the most of the talent at hand.
“The chemistry we have off the court, the amount of fun we have off the court with each other,” Burke told the media after a 94-66 victory over Northwestern. “I think that’s big and that leads over into the game and the way we play. Like coach said, we don’t have guys that are selfish, everybody’s selfless. As long as we keep that attitude, play together and make the right plays, we’ll be fine.” Burke has led the way in every aspect thus far for the Michigan offensive juggernaut that ranks second in the country in field goal percentage (52%), third in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.69), fourth in scoring margin (+21.6), and 12th in points per game (81.1).
The sophomore point guard from Columbus, Ohio leads the team in scoring (18.2) and assists (7.4), shooting 54 percent from the field and 38 percent from three. Burke plays with a steady calm and has been one of the country’s best, most efficient college players. His personal 3.64 assis-to-turnover ratio, critical for any great PG, is seventh best in America. After a solid freshman season, he’s proven that every preseason accolade he’s nominated for – AP All-American, John Wooden Player of the Year, Naismith Player of the year and the Bob Cousy Award for the best point guard in the country, is well deserved.
“It’s really a joy to watch. There’s some times that I just sit back and realize the growth of this young man,” Beilein said of his standout floor general. “He’s got a presence out there. He’s got a great ability to know when he can score and when he can find other people. His assist-to-turnover ratio says it all. That, and his percentages. He’s been doing that everyday. Practice, as well. He’s the hardest [worker]. Here’s two of his comments [to teammates during the game]: ‘How hard we have to play, people can come back quickly, [he told them], and he talked with a couple of our guys and said, ‘Stop fussing with the referees. Just play ball.’ That’s a lot of maturity right there.”
“He’s a pretty good player, that’s why everybody’s talking about him being one of the frontrunners Player of The Year,” said Northwestern point guard Dave Sobolewski, after being on the receiving end of a 23 point, five assist, four rebound, four steal night from Burke. “He does a lot of things that make his teammates better, and there’s not one thing you can take away from him, because he can do everything. He’s a great all-around player.”
The Big Ten is loaded this year and it’s always a challenge to win on the road in that league, so Michigan running the table is far too much to expect. But they’ve been impressive so far, they play together and they have a handful of future pros. Behind Burke the Wolverines have their best team in years, and a great chance to make a deep run in March.