COLUMBUS — A strange phenomenon is infiltrating deep into the scarlet heart of Ohio’s capital city.
All across the north side of Columbus, where Ohio State leads the weather in icebreaker subjects and pleasantries are punctuated with a "Go Bucks," the locals can't get enough blue.
"It's fun because you have diehard Buckeyes fans that never miss a Michigan basketball game," said Benji Burke. "It's all over the city. Barber shops, restaurants, everywhere you go, they're watching Michigan."
More to the point, they’re watching his son, Trey Burke, a former Mr. Ohio winner leading a basketball revival in Ann Arbor.
Overlooked by Ohio State and every major recruiting service — Rivals.com ranked Burke the No. 142 overall player in his class — the sophomore guard returns home today for second-ranked Michigan’s visit to No. 15 OSU as the best player on a team many believe is the best in the country.
The 6-foot, 190-pound Columbus native is a human fast-forward button — on the court and in the rebuilding of a once-proud program.
The Wolverines had steadily progressed under sixth-year coach John Beilein, from 10 wins in 2008 to a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten in 2011. But it was not until Beilein brushed off early hesitation and took a chance on Burke that the program set off on a trajectory not approached since the Fab Five heyday two decades earlier.
Burke led UM to a share of the conference title as a freshman and now has the Wolverines (16-0, 3-0 Big Ten) wading toward uncharted waters as the nation’s only unbeaten team, one victory away from their best start to a season in school history.
He is third in the Big Ten in scoring with 18.2 points per game on 53 percent shooting yet passes first. The open-handed director of the riches around him averages a league-high 7.3 assists — two more per game than the next closest challenger — and, over the last 11 games, has 82 of them against 12 turnovers. Usually tempered, Beilein said Burke is playing as well as anyone in the country.
All the while, his rise from a three-star recruit passed over by the power program in his backyard to a college star projected as a first-round NBA draft pick only intensifies focus on the question that has the sport scratching its head.
How did so many coaches and evaluators miss on Burke?
Asked if he was surprised by the degree of Burke’s success, former Columbus Northland coach Satch Sullinger replied, "No."
"I know I sound pretentious, but no, I'm not," said Sullinger, who coached Burke and his own son, Jared, an ex-OSU star who plays for the Boston Celtics. "That’s who he is."
In fact, Burke has always been ahead of his time, from the age of 5 when he was so quick that a Columbus youth league banished him from crossing halfcourt on defense to his freshman season at Northland.
Burke’s baptism came against the top teams in the state. In one early game against Toledo Libbey, which featured senior stars William Buford and Julius Wells, he was overwhelmed against the Cowboys’ 1-2-2 zone.
"Dad, Trey looks nervous," Burke’s older sister said from the stands, Benji recalled with a laugh.
"He was a fish out of water," said Benji, who played basketball at Northwest Missouri State. "That game really shellshocked him and was the last time he wanted to feel that way."
It was. Over his four seasons, Burke helped Northland meteor on to the national map.
He was often overshadowed by the 6-9 Sullinger, a two-time Mr. Ohio winner and one of the nation’s top recruits, and 6-7 forward J.D. Weatherspoon. Both were a year older, averaged more points, and signed with Ohio State.
But Burke brought the pieces together. He was the precocious leader who as a sophomore averaged 9.1 assists and made the pass that led to Sullinger’s winning free throws in the 2009 Division I state title game. The next year, the Vikings dispatched a who’s who of basketball mills, including Oak Hill Academy in Virginia and Findlay Prep in Nevada, en route to the No. 1 ranking in USA Today’s national poll.
"Jared got all the pub," Satch Sullinger said. "But people fail to realize the big man is only as good as his guard. For Jared to be the national high schol player of the year, someone had to help get him there. It was Trey Burke."
Burke hoped to stay home and play college ball with Jared, his best friend since elementary school.
"I did want to go to Ohio State, it was my hometown school," he told reporters. "Once Jared committed there and they recruited J.D., I started to like them more and more. ... I’d go to football games, and they’d send me mail and things like that. But they never forced the issue to recruit me or offer me a scholarship."
He instead committed to Penn State after his sophomore year. By the time he re-opened his recruitment in May, 2010, his options were limited. Many programs had no room for a point guard, including OSU, which had signed Findlay’s Aaron Craft and recently secured a pledge from four-star prospect Shannon Scott of Alpharetta, Ga.
Even Beilein was unsure. Michigan’s starting point guard, Darius Morris, was entering his sophomore year, while the program already had a commitment from combo guard Carlton Brundige.
Beilein, though, became sold after watching Burke at a summer AAU tournament.
"I didn’t have to sell [coaches] on Trey," Sullinger said. "The guys that understood the game of basketball like coach Beilein, he saw it. He came and watched him control a team that was talented."
Burke committed to Michigan over Cincinnati among others. A new era of Wolverines basketball was under way.
A fortunate break
For Burke, his freshman season suggested fate had guided him to former enemy grounds. One piece after another fell into place.
Recall that guard problem? Morris left Michigan to enter the NBA draft after his sophomore season, leaving Burke as the only true point guard on the roster. Beilein had no choice but to start the freshman.
What appeared a tough break instead proved a charmed one as Burke’s poise and game belied his age. He was named Big Ten freshman of the year, and Michigan went 13-5 in the Big Ten last season — its first winning conference season since 2003
"The best thing that happened in my opinion was that Ohio State didn't go after him," Sullinger said. "At Michigan, the timing was just right where Beilein had no choice but to go with Trey. The timing was just right. Everything was just right for Trey to be comfortable and not afraid to make a mistake because they didn't really have anybody behind him. He had the chance to have his coach's confidence from the very beginning.
"Would Trey have been able to do that coming into Ohio State? Hell no."
This season, Michigan overflows with potential. A group that includes seven underclassmen among the top nine scorers is the most talented of Beilein’s 37-year coaching career. All-conference junior guard Tim Hardaway, Jr., averages 16.9 points, while Nik Stauskas — the top 3-point shooter in the Big Ten — and Glenn Robinson III lead a blue-chip freshman class.
But like at Northland, the fulcrum is Burke, who returns home today as the defending national player of the week on a team with national championship ambitions. UM will likely be voted No. 1 in the country with a victory over the Buckeyes.
OSU coach Thad Matta has never directly addressed why he valued Scott over Burke, and perhaps justification is not needed. Matta’s Buckeyes have advanced to two Final Fours and won five of seven Big Ten titles.
Burke, widely projected as a mid-first round pick in this summer’s NBA draft, said he holds no ill will toward his hometown school.
"In high school, it fueled me, and made me work harder," he said Friday. "But now , I feel like I’m in the best situation I could have been in. I’m in the right place. I’m happy here. It’s not personal anymore. Playing against them is going to be fun."
Fun for a city too.
"The thing I get all the time," Benji said, "‘I’m not going to root for Michigan, but I’m definitely going to watch the game and support Trey.’ I’m OK with that."
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.