Michigan sophomore point guard Trey Burke didn't hold back this week when asked how far he thought the Wolverines could go in the NCAA Tournament. Nor did head coach John Beilein, who said he expected his team to compete as though it were one of the best in the country.
U-M was an inch, a second, bad bounce, break - name it - away from sharing a Big Ten championship. Instead, the Wolverines are the Big Ten's No. 5 seed at 25-6, opening postseason play against Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament Thursday (2:30, BTN).
Burke waffled last year before deciding to return, citing his desire for a banner as one of the reasons he came back. He's still got a chance to do something special before likely leaving for a shot at the NBA, whose analysts have him as a likely lottery pick.
"I said in the summertime I feel like this team can be, definitely, a national championship contender," he told 1130 AM's Matt Shepherd. "We're still making strides as a team. We're young, and a lot of people forget that, but it's too late in the season to keep saying that.
"I think this team can definitely get to Atlanta, this team can definitely go to the Final Four. We came off a devastating loss to Indiana, and we learned a lot from that loss, but we'll definitely have some momentum going into the NCAA tournament and going into the Big Ten tournament. I think this team can definitely get to Atlanta."
Better defense and communication will be key if the Wolverines hope to make a run, he added. It wouldn't hurt, either, if freshman Nik Stauskas or junior Tim Hardaway heated up and met their early season heights.
Burke, though, will be the catalyst. He leads the Big Ten in assists (6.8 per game), is second in scoring (19.2), first in assist-turnover ratio (3.5) and fifth in steals (1.6).
"He's played like a senior, veteran point guard the whole year, yet he's 20-years-old," head coach John Beilein said. "This is not a young man playing with a senior-laden team. He's not a young man playing with a dominating center that was un-injured all year long. We lost Jordan [Morgan] for six or seven games in the middle of our season, and it's been him and Tim Hardaway and a bunch of guys just learning on the run.
"For him to carry us and the courage he's had, the will and the fight that he's had in games with such tremendous poise? Look at him. You don't see much emotion because he's focused. Someone who does that without a supporting cast of juniors and seniors …"
Is rare. That's one of the reasons Beilein thinks Burke is more than worthy of national player of the year honors to go with his Big Ten Player of the Year Award. Many believe he's a frontrunner for the Wooden Award, the Naismith Award and the Oscar Robertson Trophy, the three most respected player of the year honors.
As always, Burke is more interested in team goals. Winning a Big Ten Tournament title and making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament is the only thing on his mind.
"I feel like the window was open last year, but this year is definitely the time for us to strike," he said. "I feel like we have the talent to get to that next level. Now it's just a question of the effort and intensity we play with.
"This team that we have this year is special, just because we have the pieces, just like the good teams like Indiana. We have the wing play, we have the bigs that are able to play defense, with Mitch [McGary] giving us offensive presence. This year is definitely the time for us to make a run in the tournament, and I think we're capable of doing that."
Michigan is favored by 15 points, just like the Wolverines were before falling in Happy Valley. That was only one of two conference wins for improving Penn State.
"They had a bad game in Minnesota, but other than that, they have played us twice very tough," Beilein said. "They all but beat Wisconsin the other night, they went to Northwestern and won and they had Illinois on the ropes, as well. They have a great chemistry and they really can beat us or anybody in the tournament the way they're playing."
Beilein will be an assistant coach for Team USA at the World University Games on July 7-16 in Kazan, Russia. Davidson's Bob McKillop will be the head coach.
"I am honored to have been selected to be an assistant coach for USA Basketball this summer at the World University Games," Beilein said. "I look forward to working with head coach Bob McKillop and Frank Martin in our quest for a gold medal. It is a great opportunity to grow as a coach while also representing the United States of America."
Beilein is also a finalist for the 2013 Skip Prosser Man of the Year Award, established in 2008 to honor those who not only achieve success on the basketball court, but who display moral integrity off of it.