Browsing the interwebs on Sunday, I came across a curiously open-ended statement regarding Michigan point guard Trey Burke and his ever-growing collection of shiny, prestigious things.
Burke, a sophomore, was named Associated Press player of the year, along with the Oscar Robertson Trophy and John R. Wooden Award earlier this week. He is a consensus All-America and will be the most-decorated Michigan player in school history.
Frankly, I have no idea what "most-decorated Michigan player in school history" means. Does it include Big Ten player of the week awards? How about Discover Card award points?
And whatever the parameters, "most-decorated" already sounds like one of those contrived distinctions that would inherently favor modern-day players, seeing as how there are about a thousand more decorations to be had these days.
But, it did get me thinking: Is the sophomore Trey Burke already the best player in Michigan basketball history? What about if he brings home the Wolverines' second-ever national championship on Monday? Would that put him clear of the field?
Short answer: I think so.
Long answer: Depends on how you define "best."
There are certain statistical standards Burke will never match: Glen Rice's career point total, Gary Grant's all-time assist mark and anything else remotely cumulative.
That's in part because the modern college game is so low scoring, and in part because Burke is almost certainly headed to the NBA after this season. But this conversation isn't about loyalty or era—it's about excellence. And, to that end, Burke has amassed a stunning collection of banquet-circuit referrals.
Below is a list of the major awards Burke has won and the Michigan players who have shared in the honor:
- Chicago Tribune Big Ten Player of the Year: Glen Rice, Gary Grant, Roy Tarpley, Campy Russell, Cazzie Russell (twice)
- Big Ten Freshman of the Year: Daniel Horton, LaVell Blanchard, Maurice Taylor, Chris Webber, Gary Grant
- Consensus All-American: Chris Webber, Gary Grant, Rickey Green, Cazzie Russell (twice)
- AP Player of the Year: Cazzie Russell
- Oscar Robertson Trophy: Cazzie Russell
- Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year: None
- Naismith National Player of the Year: None
- Wooden Award: None
Cazzie Russell, a brilliant scorer and eventual first overall pick in the 1966 NBA draft, is the only other Michigan player to be recognized as the nation's best. He also has Burke beat in terms of All-American selections (though, again, Russell benefited from playing three varsity seasons as opposed to Burke's two).
What then about team success?
Russell took the Wolverines to the Final Four in his sophomore and junior seasons, leading them to the final against UCLA in the latter. His senior season wasn't as successful, but he did help Michigan capture a third consecutive Big Ten title.
Burke has only one Big Ten title to his name, but by capturing a national championship on Monday, he'd lead Michigan to the one summit Russell never could.
Glen Rice, of course, did. In 1989, he set an NCAA tournament record for points scored, spurring the third-seeded Wolverines to an overtime win over Seton Hall in the national championship game.
Rice, however, wasn't nearly as accomplished as Russell or Burke on an individual level. The sharpshooter never made first-team All-American and was bested by his own teammate, Gary Grant, for the 1988 Big Ten Player of the Year award.
The last category of greatness is the hardest to define, and the only one that can't possibly be answered against Louisville Monday—we still don't know what will become of Burke.
Most of us, for example, would consider Michael Jordan the greatest North Carolina Tar Heel of all time. Not only for what he accomplished in baby blue, but for the legendary career that followed.
Burker, however, isn't a scintillating athlete or a particularly pure jump shooter. He'll go in the lottery in June in large part because of what he's accomplished at the collegiate level, and in spite of a six-foot frame that leaves him short of the modern point guard prototype.
Russell himself was merely an above-average pro. Rice fared better, making three consecutive NBA All-Star teams in the mid-'90s and scoring almost 19,000 career points.
In the right situation, though, Burke is capable of matching those feats.
I'm a little less sanguine on Burke's chances to eclipse the professional accomplishments of Chris Webber—a five-time NBA All-Star who, for a period in the early 2000s, was the best power forward on the planet. If it weren't for injury, Webber probably winds up as one of his generation's greatest players.
Burke is a great college talent. He may be a good pro. But Webber-good? It's hard to fathom.
What's interesting about the argument for Burke as the "greatest Michigan player ever" is that it isn't particularly resonant in any one category. But if you synthesize individual accomplishment, team accomplishment and pro potential, Burke suddenly feels like a primary contender.
He's decorated. He's won games. He, like Russell, brought the program back to national relevance after years of mediocrity (punctuated by occasional bouts of outright lousiness).
On Monday night, he could add a national title to that resume. It wouldn't end the "best ever" argument, but it'd give Burke a pretty damn convincing case.
Not bad for a kid from Columbus, Ohio. Not bad at all.
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