Sullinger, Burke Matchup Pushes Rivalry to New Heights
By Brandon Castel
INDIANAPOLIS — With the game on the line and Michigan’s Big Ten Tournament hopes hanging in the balance, Trey Burke lowered his head, drove to the basket and scored off the glass over two defenders.
The Wolverines’ star point guard scored seven of his career-high 30 points in the final five minutes, as No. 2-seed Michigan avoided what looked like a sure upset at the hands of No. 10-seed Minnesota.
It was classic Burke, a freshman from Columbus, Ohio who has quickly become one of the premier point guards in the country, not just the Big Ten.
“The story just keeps going on because I feel like sometimes I'm talking to a senior,” Michigan coach John Beilein said after his team’s 73-69 win in overtime Friday.
“He is talking to me in the game about things that he thinks we can use in our offense, and it's a pleasure. It's a wonder to have a guy who understands basketball at 19 years old as a freshman like he does. So he's easy to coach.”
The 5-11 point guard out of Columbus Northland was recently named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, an award that went to his former high school teammate turned college rival, Jared Sullinger, a year ago.
“I watched Trey play,” Sullinger said.
“He played a great game. Hopefully, he won’t (today).”
Sullinger’s older brother, James (J.J.) Sullinger Jr., was vocally pulling for Burke and the Wolverines, both from the stands at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and through his twitter account Friday.
That will change on Saturday.
Burke’s 30-point effort advanced the Wolverines to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament, where they will get another chance at Sullinger and the Buckeyes, who knocked them out of last year’s tournament in this very same arena.
After watching Burke do his thing in the overtime win against Minnesota just before taking the floor for warmups, Sullinger went to work against Purdue in the evening game. The 6-9 sophomore scored a season-high 30 points, on 12-of-17 shooting in an 88-71 blowout of the Boilermakers.
He was as active and engaged has he been at any point this season, grabbing 12 rebounds and tallying a season-high three blocks in the victory. He knocked down all five of his free throws and drained a three at the end of the first half to give Ohio State some separation going into the break.
“I’m not trying to toot my own horn, but we played through me,” said Sullinger, a first team All-Big Ten selection the past two seasons.
“Obviously, when we see the double, our guards understand that if they get into the open spot, they're going to have a knockdown jump shot, or if they don't double, they're going to let me go work. So I thought that was the biggest key to this game.”
As expected, Sullinger and Burke were the keys for their respective teams Friday, and that isn’t expected to change on Saturday as Ohio State and Michigan meet for the rubber-match a three-game series.
The Buckeyes blasted Michigan by 15 points in Columbus back on Jan. 29. Sullinger had only 13 points and five rebounds in that game, but Lenzelle Smith, Jr. went off for 17 points and 12 rebounds, including eight offensive boards.
OSU point guard Aaron Craft helped limit Burke to 13 points on 5-of-11 shooting. He also had five assists, but turned the ball over five times.
“It’s not just Aaron,” OSU head coach Thad Matta said. “It has to be a team effort in defending Trey.”
They weren’t nearly as effective in the second meeting, where Burke went for 17 points and five assists in a 56-51 Michigan victory. Sullinger was limited to 14 points and eight rebounds, while Burke scored a number of key baskets down the stretch, including a game-clinching runner with 11 seconds left that helped Michigan stop a six-game losing streak to Ohio State.
“He wants to win more than he wants to score points, but he also is not afraid to take it at people,” Beilein said.
Burke has scored double-figures in Michigan’s last 11 games, including 17 points or more in five of the last six. He also makes everything else go for players like Tim Hardaway, Jr., Stu Douglass and Zach Novak.
“It's a perfect system for him (at Michigan),” Sullinger said.
“He fits perfectly.”
He would also fit pretty nicely at Ohio State, where the Buckeyes could use a dynamic playmaker alongside Craft in the backcourt. Instead, Matta and his staff offered Shannon Scott, a McDonald’s All-American and the son of former North Carolina star Charlie Scott.
It hasn’t been an even trade-off for the Wolverines, who were able to capitalize on Ohio State’s decision to go with Craft and Scott instead of Burke, who has been friends with Sullinger since their days as young kids.
If nothing else, the matchup between the two friends has pushed Ohio State’s basketball rivalry with “that school up north” to new heights.
“They like to call us ‘Ohio,’ so that's what we're going to call them from now on,” Sullinger said with a smile.
We will find out who is still smiling, Sullinger or Burke, when the two teams meet on the court Saturday afternoon (4:15 p.m. ET, CBS).
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