College sports is a beautiful thing to watch. The combination of great athletes, hall of fame coaches, unique traditions, and diaper dandies make college sports a spectacle incomparable to anything else the world sports has to offer. There is nothing more exciting, and often satisfying, than watching the long-time superpower get dethroned by the unknown.
But even after growing up watching all types of college sports, the one thing that has never escaped my mind are the athletes themselves. Why is it that often times the best players are the ones who aren’t highly recruited out of high school, or don’t end up on historically the best teams? Why is it that a player goes unnoticed by every major college sports program, but than becomes a sensational superstar? What defines the make-up of a player? And why do some coaches see potential when most others don’t?
Maybe I question these things because I have always seen the world from the bottom of the food chain. As a naturally non-athletic person who loves to partake in sports, I figure my fascination with this subject developed because I have always had to overcome my inabilities with the intangibles coaches can’t teach you: hard work, sportsmanship, effort, and love for the game.
It seems like now more than ever, big-time players from small colleges are making names for themselves. Not only are many of these athletes becoming successful, but often becoming exceptional players at the professional level.
The 2012-2013 college basketball season has brought us many interesting story lines to discuss. From the resurrection of mid-major powers like Butler and Creighton, to the inconstancy of top tier teams atop the rankings, and to the intensity of top conferences like the Big 10 and ACC. All of these themes present fascinating topics to discuss come March, but nothing grabs my attention as much as the rise of small-program players making huge impacts on the national scene.
At this time three years ago, Doug McDermott was a freshman small/power forward with high hopes of one day making an impact on the collegiate level. Coming out of high school, McDermott was not heavily recruited like so many other stars of his caliber, and chose to play at Creighton where his dad is the head coach. After a solid freshman season in which he averaged close to 15 points per game, McDermott followed that up next season by increasing his scoring average to almost 23 points per game and adding eight rebounds per game. Now in his Junior year, McDermott has burst on to the national scene, averaging 23.3 ppg and 7.5 rpg, helping Creighton crack into the top 25 and make a push into the talk of legitimate national title contenders.
But the one player who has made the biggest impact on the national scene, and burst into the minds of NBA scouts, is Michigan’s sophomore point guard Trey Burke. Burke came out of high school as an undersized point guard with a good skill set and instincts, but lacked the size and athleticism to garner the attention of any big-time programs. At the last minute, Burke chose to attend Michigan over his previous commitment, Penn State.
Burke went to Northland High School, playing alongside some of the best high school players in the country. Although he has always had a natural ability to find the open man, make the extra pass, and hit the open shot, his under appreciation may have had something to do with the fact that he played alongside national player of the year, Jared Sullinger. While Sullinger was grabbing all the headlines for his domination and future NBA potential, Burke was dishing and dropping alley-oops to the big man, undermining and not allowing scouts to see his potential
As a freshman, Burke averaged 14.6 ppg and 4.6 assists per game, leading a young Michigan team to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament, which many considered an over-achievement.
This season, Burke has done nothing but played phenomenal and beautiful basketball. Increasing his average to 18.2 ppg and 7.1 assists per game, Burke has led the Wolverines to their first number one ranking since the Fab Five days, and put them in a position for a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. Burke has turned himself into not only a contender for national player of the year, but also a potential lottery pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.
You might be asking yourself why I feel so compelled to talk about a player who hasn’t even scratched the surface of what he could do, but I am the first to admit I never imagined Burke would flourish into the player he has become. Burke and I are both from Columbus, Ohio, so naturally I grew up hearing stories about Burke, Jared Sullinger, and the legendary Northland High School basketball team. I watched Northland play several times in person, and the only person who never stuck out to me was Trey Burke. Maybe it was because he was the only kid on the team shorter than 6’2”, but nothing about his game made me believe he would ever turn into an All-American point guard on the brink of winning of national championship. Nothing about his game read, “next great point-guard.” I thought of him as a good complimentary player, but never someone who would be asked to take the winning-shot. Like so many others, I was very wrong.
Trey, I’d like to personally apologize for doubting your demeanor and ability. What I didn’t see in Burke is exactly what makes him the great player he is. Like so many other players who weren’t highly recruited out of high school, it is the little things about Burke that define his game. He may not make SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays, or have a ridiculous highlight real, but his will to win overshadows any quality you will see from big-time athletes at powerhouse programs. Nowadays, watching Burke dominate against my favorite team, (I won’t say who but if you know anything about college sports you can take a good guess) it makes me realize how far and wide one must go to find the right player, not the best player.