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February 2, 2013Michigan has risen to No. 1 in college basketball for the first time in more than two decades.
While that doesn't happen to any program based on a single individual, there is a clear driving force behind this Wolverines' team: Trey Burke.
The only Big Ten player to average more than 17 points and seven assists since Magic Johnson did it in 1979, the sophomore point guard is a consistent scorer and passer who has become dangerous in the pick and roll in addition to his incredible open-court ability.
When the No. 1 Wolverines (20-1, 7-1 Big Ten) face No. 3 Indiana (19-2, 7-1) at 9 tonight inside Assembly Hall, the conversation begins with what IU can do with Burke.
"I think he's the best point guard in the country, so containing him is a big factor in the game," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. "I think Michigan is an underrated transition team. They're very efficient with when they get out and run. They don't run as much as other teams. If you look at their Kenpom.com stats, they're not up there in pace of play, but when they run, they run. Their lanes get filled fast.
"They've got really speedy guys and Burke makes it go. He gets it across half court in a dribble or two and really makes good decisions. The key is - and it's easy to say but it's hard to do - can you corral him in transition and slow him down, can you stay in front of him and not get on the side of him. Once he's got an angle, he's going to score."
Burke has spearheaded a multi-faceted offense that is the best in the country. Michigan averages just 63.7 possessions per 40 minutes, which ranks 296th in the country, but the Wolverines score 1.22 points per possession, the top rate in college basketball.
Michigan, No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for first time since Nov. 30, 1992, has the top offense in the country with a 124.8 adjusted rating, according to Kenpom.com. Indiana is third at 122.9.
Part of what makes Burke dangerous is how he creates for himself and others. He's scoring 17.9 points per game, but Tim Hardaway Jr. averages 15.5, freshman Nik Stauskas 12.6 and fellow freshman Glenn Robinson III 12.1. Those four have combined for 73.5 percent of Michigan's offense.
Burke averaged 14.8 points and 4.6 assists last year in sharing Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors with Indiana's Cody Zeller. And Burke's been even better in Big Ten play, averaging 18.1 points per game.
Burke isn't a bad 3-pointer shooter, but his teammates are better. In Big Ten, Burke shoots 35.1 percent from the arc, Hardaway 51.4 percent, Robinson 46.7 percent and Stauskas 37.5 percent.
What sets Burke apart this season isn't his shooting. It's his explosiveness.
"He's got great explosiveness," IU coach Tom Crean said. "He keeps his dribble alive. He's going to keep going until he gets what he wants for himself or for his teammates. That's what makes him so dangerous. He can play with either hand. He's tremendous in the pick and roll. He's tremendous at not only scoring the ball but finding people.
"He's got great anticipation skills - you've got to take care of the ball against him. But I just think it's that burst and explosiveness that goes with his instincts and talent."
At 6-foot, Burke doesn't have much of a height advantage, but his 6-foot-5 reach can be beneficial. An incredibly productive player in high school, Burke, who originally committed to Penn State in 2009, was the point guard on Jared Sullinger's team in Ohio, and Northland went 97-5 during his four years and reached a USA Today No. 1 national ranking.
Now, he's powered Michigan to the top of the college poll.
"He's really good," Indiana senior guard Jordan Hulls said. "He can do a lot of different things. He can shoot. He can pass, so that all makes him pretty difficult to defend. We just have to execute the game plan for that."
Indiana freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell said earlier in the week that he had the assignment of guarding Burke, but that sounds like a portion of the plan. Certainly in 6-foot-5 junior Victor Oladipo, Indiana has one of the best defenders in the country. Oladipo can play on the ball, but his ability to get in passing lanes while off the ball also is a major factor in IU's defense.
"Whoever is guarding Trey Burke is not guarding him by himself," Crean said.
Generally speaking, there are five basic techniques for guarding the pick and roll:
Jam it - The defender on the screener closes tight on the screen and the on-ball defender goes under the screen. The idea here is to prevent the screener from having a chance to do much of anything, kind of locking him in place.
Up and over - The defender on the screener steps up on the player with the ball about a step away from the screener. The on-ball defender then can get between the screener and his own teammate before the player guarding the screener recovers to his man. The main idea on this is to prevent a shot behind the screen.
Up and under - The defender on the screener goes up about half a body beyond the screen to disrupt the rhythm or path of the man with the ball but keeps contact with his man. This often is used if a screener can roll or pop well.
Trap - Both defenders, the man on the screener and the man on the ball, go over the screen and trap the player with the ball. The idea is to force the player with the ball to give it up and not turn the corner and make a play, basically forcing the decision and not allowing the offense multiple options.
Pin down - The defender on the ball turns the dribbler, not allowing him to get to the screen. This most often happens when the ballhandler is on the side and the screen is higher toward the middle of the floor.
There are multiple adaptations and tweaks on all of these and terminology can vary widely, but these are the basics of the fundamental techniques used against the pick and roll, many of which have roots in the NBA, where the pick and roll is prevalent.
In all those situations, the help defender's technique is a key part and if Michigan's big men are setting the screens, that's IU 7-foot sophomore Cody Zeller.
"Help defense is crucial but the guys that play like there is no help are the guys that are going to be really successful in this game," Crean said. "You can't rely on help. There are too many good players. You have to do your work early. You have to be very visible to the ball, very vocal to your teammates. It can't be a game you get caught in a lot of over-help situations. Certainly with Cody's ability to play different people, play different ways defensively is a huge, huge X-factor in this game.
"Obviously, what he does on offense and being a good player speaks for itself. The thing that he's doing is he can do so many different things on defense, which he's get the attention for, the credit for. But we see it constantly and that continues to get better. Some of it is because of his athleticism. Some of it is because of his intelligence and instincts. The rest is because he's getting better."
Zeller's defensive craftiness and technique are buoyed by his wingspan, quickness and footwork.
"Zeller is about as good a help defender as you'll find," Bilas said.
All that said, it's one thing to have a plan. It's another thing for players to implement it consistently against an elite offensive opponent such as Burke.
"It's like Mike Tyson used to say, 'Everyone's got a plan until they get hit,'" Bilas said. "He's a great, great college guard."
And what Indiana can do with him will go a long way in determining the winner of the first No. 1 vs. No. 3 showdown in Assembly Hall history.