For the Wolf Pack to do something special this season -- like win the Mountain West and go to the NCAA tournament -- it needs Burton's best. It needs the Burton who believes he is a NBA point guard. It needs the Burton who is cocky enough to toss up an off-balance, game-winning 3-pointer as time expires and then runs to the other end of the court, jumps up on the media table and pounds his chest.
Yeah, that Burton. The one that is fearless and can put a team on his back. The one that can take a team that won a dozen games the year before and carry it into the NCAA tournament the next.
They didn't get that Burton Tuesday night and well, the result was a demoralizing bring-you-back-to-earth 74-65 loss at home to the Boise State Broncos.
"They did a good job on defense," said Burton of Boise State. "Give them credit."
Uh, no. We're not going to give Boise State credit. Giving other teams credit in January and February only gets you a ticket on your couch watching ESPN come tournament time.
"They had a good game plan against us," Pack coach David Carter said.
It's only good because Burton allowed it to work. It shouldn't have worked.
The Broncos' brilliant game plan was to keep Burton from driving to the basket. And for some reason Burton, the only player on the roster who has the ability, toughness and confidence to drive to the basket on a consistent basis, allowed Boise to put him in a nice, neat little box the entire night.
Boise State's Derrick Marks, who learned his basketball smarts and toughness in Chicago, smothered Burton all night. He stayed in front of the Pack point guard and dared him to run him over. He put his chest in Burton's chest. He looked Burton straight in the eye the entire game and Burton, the heart and soul of this Wolf Pack program the last four years, well, he passed the ball.
Burton took just eight shots all night long. He took just three shots in the second half. Burton passed and passed and passed. Burton took one shot in the first 10 minutes of the game. He took one shot in the first 11 minutes of the second half.
What did all that passing get the Pack? It got them their first Mountain West loss.
The Pack made a mere 6-of-23 shots in the first half. They made just 8-of-25 shots in the second half before Boise stopped playing defense in the final two minutes of the game. So, basically, Burton spent the bulk of the game passing to a bunch of guys all night who couldn't make shots.
At the end of the night the top scorer in the Mountain West missed seven of his eight shots and finished with seven points. This is a guy who once scored 16 points in a span of four minutes to beat Washington in overtime. It was just the 27th time in his 116-game Wolf Pack career that Burton failed to score in double digits. It was the first time this year that he scored fewer than 14 points.
"You are not going to shoot the ball spectacularly every night," Burton said.
Yeah, but you have to try. You have to try when you are the best player not only on your team but in the entire conference.
"We were taking what the defense was giving us," Carter said.
Good teams take what they want. Great players -- and Burton is a great player when he sets his mind to it -- take what they want. When they want it. They don't let a Derrick Marks puff up their chest and push them around on their own home floor.
Burton has had three awful shooting nights this season. And, to nobody's surprise, the Pack has lost all three games. He was 5-of-14 overall and 1-of-7 on threes in an 80-78 loss to Pacific. He was 4-of-17 (0-of-8 on threes) in an 80-77 overtime loss to Long beach State. And then came Tuesday.
The biggest sin was not that the Pack lost. Boise is a solid team. This wasn't a bad loss by the Pack at all. The biggest sin also wasn't that Burton missed almost all of his shots. Sometimes the ball simply doesn't go in the basket.
The biggest sin Tuesday is that Burton simply stopped shooting in a game when his teammates desperately needed him.
He didn't shoot well against Pacific and Morehead State but at least he shot. He took 14 shots against Pacific and got to the free throw line 13 times. Against Morehead he took 17 shots and took a dozen free throws.
When a Derrick Marks has the audacity to stand in front of your best player all night, you have to send a Derrick Marks to the bench with foul trouble. We live in a basketball age when the officials call a foul on the defensive player when he merely looks at a guy who is driving to the basket. How aggressive was Burton? Marks played 38 minutes and was called for just two fouls.
Burton, though, has become the Jadeveon Clowney of the hardcourt the last two games. He took 20 shots and scored 29 points in 32 minutes in a 74-71 win at UNLV on Jan. 8 and has treated the last two games like he is merely trying to stay healthy for all those NBA tryouts in April.
This is the second game in a row when Burton has turned into Ramon Sessions and tried to be a passer rather than a scorer. Against Utah State last Saturday he took just nine shots and went to the free throw line just four times. But he didn't have to score that night. The Pack won rather easily 62-54 as Utah State (2-of-16 on threes) couldn't make a shot.
Burton's output of 14 field goals and free throws combined on Tuesday and 13 last Saturday are his lowest outputs since he had 13 (10 field goals, three free throws) against New Mexico last March 6. Before the last two games Burton had played just 13 other conference games in his Pack career with 14 or fewer field goal and free throw attempts combined. All but four of the 13 came in his first two seasons when he had older and more experienced teammates.
Let's hope the last two games haven't started a change in the good old aggressive, beast-mode Burton philosophy. If it is, well, don't expect the Pack to win a meaningful game (New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV, Boise State, any Mountain West tournament game) the rest of the year.
The Wolf Pack needs Burton to be aggressive for a lot of reasons. The biggest reason is that he is by far their most reliable and consistent scorer. Jerry Evans, Michael Perez, Cole Huff all can score. All have the ability to put the ball in the bucket. But you can't count on it.
The Pack counts on Burton. They beat UNLV because Burton put everyone on his back. He set the tone. His 20 shots equaled his career high. Those 20 shots exhibited an unbridled confidence and showed his teammates that they can indeed go to Las Vegas and win more than just a free buffet.
On Tuesday, he showed them that they couldn't win.
The other reason the Pack needs Burton to play as if his hair and shorts are on fire is that this team obviously feeds off him. He is the Pack's unquestioned leader this season. When the rest of the team sees Burton frustrated and giving in to a defense, well, they lose a large chunk of their confidence.
Confidence is this team's biggest hurdle this year. It is a group that doesn't know how good it is. So when they are faced with a little adversity they tend to go back in their shell and become frustrated.
This is a team with just two real leaders. Burton and A.J. West. Burton is the spiritual leader. He is the leader on and off the court. He's the guy everyone follows and wants to play well for. He's the one they want to make proud.
West leads with his cockiness, brashness and toughness. He's the team's enforcer on the floor. He shows them that they don't have to be afraid of anyone or anything. Until West came along, the Pack played as if it was afraid of its own shadow. With West, they play as if they can beat anyone. West gave this team a heart transplant.
Until Tuesday. Both leaders abandoned their troops on Tuesday.
West disappeared against the Broncos with three points and one rebound in 21 foul-filled minutes. In short, he gave us a pretty good Kevin Panzer and Devonte Elliott impersonation. The Pack played without any confidence against Boise State because its leaders were tied up and gagged by the enemy all night long.
West and Burton are this team's confidence meter. When those two play with aggressiveness, toughness and daring -- like they had the previous six games -- everyone else feels its safe to do the same. Burton and West vanished against Boise and their teammates followed them into the vacuum.
What we saw Tuesday was the Pack team that went 16-26 from 2012-13 through the first 11 games of this year. They were frustrated. They played scared. They played without any confidence. Boise flexed its muscles, stood in the paint and didn't allow the Pack to get to the basket and the Pack meekly turned around and ran with its tail between its legs. They complained to each other and the officials. They hung their heads.
When Boise's Anthony Drmic strolled all alone to the basket for a lay-up and a 63-49 Broncos lead with 3:31 to go, that was the old Pack back in the gym.
You know, the one that didn't compete. The one that let teams come into Lawlor and abuse them. The one we thought vanished with the recent four-game winning streak.
"We kind of got depressed," Burton said.
So did the 8,669 in attendance, many of which headed home after Drmic's lay-up.
A college basketball team riding a four-game winning streak and playing in front of its biggest home crowd of the year should not get depressed when times get tough. It should get mad and angry. It should want to send the nearest Bronco into the fifth row.
But the Pack pouted and throw up its arms in frustration. They made meaningless excuses. That darn basketball, they said after the game, just refused to go in the basket for them. Imagine that.
Like he did against UNLV, Burton set the tone against Boise State. And it was a tone the Pack better not hear the rest of the year.
The next time Burton is faced with a defense that won't let him get to the basket he needs to pin his ears back and knock that defense into the front row. What was he afraid of? Boise is one of the smallest teams in the Mountain West. This is a team that can keep you out of the paint? If Burton really wants to play in the NBA he simply cannot let a Derrick Marks get in his way.
Ever again. Not at home. Not anywhere.
But Burton and the Pack shriveled up in the moment on Tuesday. It was really their first meaningful game in almost two years. Four-game winning streak. A big bull's eye on their back in the form of a 4-0 Mountain West record. A must-win home game. It all was a bit too much for this team.
"We learned that a four-game winning streak doesn't mean anything," Carter said. "We haven't done anything yet."
They certainly didn't do anything on Tuesday except bring back a lot of bad memories.
That can't happen anymore. And Burton can't allow it.
He's too good to allow that to happen again.