ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- It is an adjustment that could seem massive, but it became subtle the second Michigan sophomore point guard Trey Burke saw what he was working with.
Having made the decision to spurn the NBA for a second year in college, he showed up for summer open gyms, watched his new and returning teammates, and figured his role could change slightly this season.
How else to explain how, in just one half, Burke tied his career high for assists in a game, during No. 3 Michigan’s 79-72 victory over No. 18 North Carolina State on Tuesday in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Oh, he didn’t score in the half, either.
A scoreless Burke, even for a half, might have led to a Michigan loss last season. It almost certainly would have led to a major struggle for the Wolverines back then.
“Oh, that would have been difficult,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “But with nine assists, though, at the end of those nine assists, someone is scoring.”
This season, it is merely part of the transformation, when arguably the nation’s best point guard can distribute first, second, third and fourth, take only two shots in a half, and find guys open nine times for baskets, and his team could lead for the majority of the half anyway.
Part of the reason is Michigan’s growing options. Burke -- who finished with his first career double-double at 18 points and 11 assists, and no turnovers -- can pick apart a defense, and hit shooters and post men over and over again with the confidence that they’ll make shots.
Consider the options on this Wolverines team. At one point in the first half, Michigan’s fourth-, fifth- and sixth-leading scorers -- Nik Stauskas, Jordan Morgan and Mitch McGary, respectively -- scored a combined 18 consecutive points.
“Today, the team needed me to get guys going early on, and that opened it up for us in the second half,” Burke said. “I was able to get in the paint and hit guys, get in the paint and hit floaters.
“Kind of last year, the offense would be stagnant and you guys would be used to seeing a pick-and-roll to a 3 or a pick-and-roll to the basket. Guys like Nik and Glenn [Robinson III] that can catch alley-oops and on the perimeter can hit 3s, it’s a different kind of feel this year.”
Beilein didn’t want to say this team has more options than any other in his 21 seasons coaching in Division I, mainly because his other good teams would argue with him.
But the type of depth the Wolverines have has turned Michigan from a nice team that could compete with most squads into one NC State coach Mark Gottfried labeled “legitimate” multiple times -- as in, legitimately one of the nation’s top teams.
The depth starts with Stauskas, who entered the game as Michigan’s fourth-leading scorer and had a team-high 20 points Tuesday, including scoring 13 points on four shots at one point in the first half.
While junior guard Tim Hardaway Jr. is the player on this Wolverines team who can score in multiple ways, Stauskas is the one who stretches the floor every time he is on it, opening up the post for Morgan, McGary and Jon Horford along with driving lanes for Hardaway and Burke.
“When I make a couple of 3s, no one really helps off me,” Stauskas said. “Trey can get into the lane a lot easier. Even when the bigs get the ball in the post, no one is going to squash down on them.
“I feel like when I make 3s, it helps the whole team out.”
Stauskas scored 17 points in one exhibition game and led Michigan in scoring. While the game meant nothing to Michigan, it meant a lot to Stauskas, who has built off of it each contest since.
Despite seeing far fewer shots than he had in summer basketball or in high school at St. Mark’s in Massachusetts, his form never left. Neither did his confidence. If anything, Stauskas has to be reminded of it every so often from his distributor, Burke.
“I tell him when I hit you and you're open, shoot the ball,” Burke said. “Sometimes he pump-fakes or dribbles. Shoot the ball.”
He has. And on a Michigan team still learning how good it potentially could be, Stauskas has become yet another option.