COLUMBUS, Ohio -- On Sunday, Trey Burke will return to his hometown. And just as he did during last year's homecoming, he'll come back to Columbus better than before.
It was just a season ago that the Michigan point guard burst onto the scene as one of college basketball's surprise freshmen, averaging 14.8 points and 4.8 assists per game en route to being named the Big Ten's co-Freshman on the Year. Burke's breakout season helped pave the way to a 24-10 record for the Wolverines and a share of the conference's regular season title.
This season, both the expectations and stakes have been raised for Michigan, on the eve the Wolverines' annual trip to Columbus to face rival Ohio State.
Having built a 16-0 record, Michigan currently stands as the nation's second-ranked team, and is one of just three unbeaten teams remaining in Division I college basketball. The Wolverines' success has come thanks in no small part to Burke, who has emerged as a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate through the first half of the season while averaging 18.2 points and 7.3 assists per game.
"It's just a matter of knowing the offense, knowing the playbook better. You know, just running the team," Burke said.
But while the Northland high school product's improvement has been noticeable in the stat sheet, Michigan coach John Beilein said that he's seen the most growth from Burke in his leadership. With a relatively young team that relies heavily on freshmen Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, Burke has taken his role as the Wolverines' point guard and leader seriously, which according to Beilein has turned him into one of the best in the country.
"Every day there's some things he does in practice that are the ones that the truly great college players do," Beilein said during Monday's Big Ten coaches teleconference. "I'm not talking about some incredible one-on-one move, which he's talented in. I'm talking about leadership, focus, emphasis on defense. Emphasis on picking up his teammates. Those are the things that have fed his journey right now where he is really right now playing well, playing as well as anybody in the league, if not the nation.
"He really has things in great perspective, what's most important, and that's the team. As a result, his numbers are really incredible because of his focus on his teammates. For young players to do that? That's more junior/senior type of attitude. For someone to do that as a sophomore, it tells a lot about who he is."
Burke's importance to his team will only be magnified on Sunday, when Michigan travels to Columbus for its toughest test of the season so far in a meeting with the No. 15-ranked Buckeyes (12-3, 2-1). Last season, the Wolverines split their regular season series with Ohio State, before falling to the Buckeyes in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament.
With one return to his hometown already under his belt, 2011's Ohio Mr. Basketball award winner knows what to expect from the Columbus crowd, but is excited for it nonetheless.
"I expect the same type of atmosphere as last year. It was very intense. We all were getting booed," Burke said. "It should be fun. I'm excited to go back home and play a good Ohio State team."