ATLANTA -- The basketball world will watch Trey Burke tonight, which makes sense, because it seems the world is resting on his shoulders. Nobody carries more weight and responsibility in college hoops. He's asked to do it all, to stay cool against the thermal Louisville press that's coming, to set up his Michigan teammates for easy buckets, to score, to defend, to show the way.
And this being the national championship game, Michigan fans are adding a couple more favors to ask from Burke:
Can he match the 1989 memory of Rumeal Robinson, the point guard who won the last Michigan title?
And in the process, wipe away every slimy memory of Robinson since then?
It's a lot to ask of almost any sophomore, although Burke, even stuck in a shooting slump, seems a cut above. A championship ring will only add to his growing bling collection: Big 10 Player of the Year, Oscar Robertson trophy, AP national player of the Year, Wooden Award. He's cleaning up and giving every impression that the best is yet to come. The championship game will almost assuredly be his last in college basketball, because he's looking like an NBA lottery pick, perhaps a top-five selection.
"It's kind of surreal," he said. "Growing up as a kid, watching March Madness, you always wanted to see yourself playing in the Final Four, for a national championship, I'm just real excited for the opportunity. To be here in Atlanta, it's a dream come true."
Given his size (listed as 6' on the official Michigan site) and his bulldog toughness and his leadership skills, he's cut in the mold of Robinson, the glue of that '89 championship team and eventually the hero. In the final seconds against Seton Hall, the Wolverines drew the final play in overtime not for Glen Rice, their leading scorer, but Robinson, their clutch player. He drove the lane and … well, to this day nobody's quite sure if that was a legitimate foul call. Ticky-tack, at best. Still, Robinson, his team down by a point, had to make a pair of free throws with three seconds left. Swish. Swish again. That was the cue for the Michigan band to play The Victors.
Strange thing: Although the '89 team actually won the title, image-wise those Wolverines take a back seat to the swaggy, baggy Fab Five, the team big on promise and short on delivery. Twenty years ago the Five coughed up the championship to North Carolina and are still the topic of conversation on campus. By comparison, players on the 2013 team was asked Sunday to name the five starters from '89. They only came up with two: Rice and Robinson.
Of course. How could they forget Rice, who became an NBA All-Star? And Robinson, the championship game hero who became … a felon?
Robinson will watch the title game from his cell in a Louisiana prison. He's almost halfway through a six-year sentence for bank bribery and wire fraud, which doesn't begin to explain how dishonest and reckless Robinson was with friends, business associates and family. While his unspectacular nine-year NBA career tanked, he borrowed millions to fund phony real estate projects and feed an addictive life of luxury and never repaid any of it. He burned through his own savings, then conned others out of their savings. He bankrupt two people and put an Iowa bank roughly $1 million in the hole. And yet, that still doesn't explain how much of a creep he was.
In his lowest moment, Robinson essentially stole his childhood home, where he was raised by an adoptive mother who found him on the streets as an orphan, which in turn put her on the streets, broke and heartbroken. And he showed no remorse for any of this.
Put it this way: Chris Webber, who put Michigan on NCAA probation and erased a pair of Final Fours from the record books for lying about accepting money, will be welcomed in Ann Arbor before Robinson.
Robinson's name came up this weekend because Michigan is back in the big game, because he was one of only two players from '89 who left a mark on the current team, and because once again Michigan is riding a dazzling playmaking point guard toward the top.
Burke seems destined for a big Monday if only because the last few games haven't met the standards he set for himself in this, a breakout season. He missed seven of eight shots Saturday against Syracuse. He also bricked a free throw in the final seconds that kept a Syracuse comeback alive. This was unusual from a player who can reach the rim and shoot from distance, who averaged 18.8 points and 6.8 assists and three steals entering the game -- and looked like the best point guard in the country.
"I tried to contribute in ways other than scoring," he said. "Their game plan was to force me to shoot tough, contested threes. I'm not worried. I'll do whatever I can to help my team win, even when the shots aren't falling."
The good news for Michigan is Burke had only one turnover against Syracuse. That's why Michigan won. That kind of steadiness will only help when Louisville brings the press and the aggressive man-to-man style that turns opposing point guards into mush. The Cardinals force turnovers and make stops and rattle ball-handlers. If Burke delivers on Monday, then it will be, easily, his finest of the season, given what he's up against.
"With Trey, we don't worry too much, we know what he's capable of doing, because he's done it for us all year," said Glenn Robinson III.
Burke has come a long way since last season, when coach John Beilein turned the Wolverines over to a freshman high on promise, short on experience. Burke led Michigan in scoring, assists and steals, but wasn't polished. This season? He was the finest player in a competitive conference, and beat out everyone in the nation for the Wooden Award, which was deserving.
"He makes us whole as a team, because a lot of what we do starts with him," Beilein said. "He helps in so many areas, and that's a credit to the many hours of hard work he put in over the summer and the determination he's shown this season. Plus, he's a total team player, always thinking of ways to make his team better."
His improvement will come at a cost; Burke is just an announcement away from making his departure from Michigan official. In a draft that isn't terribly deep or talented overall, Burke will be hard for a team looking for a point guard to turn down.
He was born three years after Michigan's last national championship and only knows about it from footage and campus legend and the assorted artifacts inside Crisler Center and the basketball practice facility. From that team, only Rice's number hangs from the ceiling. Robinson's presence is mostly limited to a team picture. There are no ceremonies for Robinson's jersey planned for 2016, his scheduled release, or beyond.
"From what I could tell, he ran his team well and did what he had to do as a point guard," said Burke. "And those two free throws he hit, it doesn't get bigger than that."
No, it doesn't. But another Michigan point guard has a chance to match that. Trey Burke can do what Robinson did, win a championship, and also what Robinson didn't: leave an uplifting memory that goes beyond Monday night at the Georgia Dome.