ATLANTA -- A little more than three minutes separated the Michigan basketball team from a berth in the national title game against Louisville. The Wolverines were ahead 53-45 against Syracuse on Saturday evening in the Georgia Dome, but the tides were beginning to turn. Michigan had been up by as many as 11 points in the second half, but Syracuse kept clawing its way back to make the game closer.

In the Michigan huddle during the under-four-minute media timeout, when the team needed energy and fire the most to help preserve its lead, the Wolverines did not look toward their national player of the year, Trey Burke. They did not look toward any of the team’s five seniors.

Mitch McGary roared at his teammates, as senior Jon Horford said McGary had been known to do during his first season at Michigan. A lot of times, what he had to say wasn’t what was important, Horford said, but it was the way he was able to inspire his teammates, even as a freshman.

“Content isn’t always necessary,” Horford said. “In some instances it’s not the right way to go. I feel the way Mitch is most effective is in his emotional energy. Him yelling and being all that stuff, that’s his thing. I don’t want him to change, I want him to be him. Screaming and trying to get people hyped that way is what he does.”

McGary has been transformed this season, especially during Michigan’s run in the NCAA tournament, from an emotionally driven freshman with aspirations of being a leader to a starter, a contributor on the court and a fiery teammate who pushes his teammates to perform at their best. Those elements have been crucial to Michigan’s run to the national championship game.

ROOM TO GROW

McGary chose Michigan over several other storied basketball programs that had recruited him during his high-school career at Chesterton (Ind.) High School. He turned down offers from Purdue, his parents’ initial top choice, as well as schools such as Duke and Florida, which had more recent success than had the Wolverines.

The freshman said he felt that head coach John Beilein and his staff really cared about him, not just as a basketball player, but as a person and student. “They stayed true to me,” McGary said. “They were real classy with it. They didn’t give me the normal car-salesman pitch like every other coach did. They told me what I wanted to hear, told me I have to earn everything when I get there.”

And for a student who suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and who chooses to battle the condition without any medication, McGary said attention and guidance to help him develop both on and off the court was a necessity wherever he decided to spend his college basketball career.

McGary transferred to Brewster Academy after three years of high-school basketball at Chesterton to help him develop both on and off the court. He said it was there that he learned to cope with the disorder, and he began to learn how to focus both in the classroom and on the hardwood.

But the disorder didn’t take away his emotional drive, he said, and he came to Ann Arbor, Mich., the summer before his freshman season hoping to make any impact he could.

Yet, on a team with five seniors and several future NBA prospects, finding playing time wasn’t always easy.

He started just twice before the start of the NCAA tournament as Beilein tried to give his older players, Horford and junior Jordan Morgan, the playing time they deserved.

But Beilein said McGary actually was the one who told his coach that he would rather be an energizer to his team coming off the bench. It was a role that he previously embraced at Brewster.

“There were a couple times he deserved to start by his play, but I also am very loyal to some of my upperclassmen, Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan, who had been injured,” Beilein said. “He said, ‘Let Jordan start. I’m fine coming off the bench.’ ”

Although he was only a raw freshman and often didn’t start, his teammates said that the energy he could provide from the bench and on the court began to appear as one of the biggest contributions McGary could make to his team.

“It’s that emotional energy that helps drive people a lot of times,” Horford said. “He’s a big guy, and it’s just his energy. For a guy that size to have the energy he has, that’s what makes him tough to play against.”

Mitch McGary recorded a double-double
against Syracuse with 10 points and a
game-high 12 rebounds.
AP Images

UPS AND DOWNS

McGary began to see a brief spike in his minutes midway through the Big Ten season, but coincidentally -- or not -- it was during Michigan’s roughest stretch of the season.

He played at least 25 minutes against Indiana, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State -- including the first start of his college career against the Spartans -- but the Wolverines dropped three of those four games and fell from the No. 1 ranking entering February.

McGary’s numbers actually dipped during Big Ten play, where he averaged just 6.2 points per game going up against conference foes, compared to 7.5 points per game during his entire season.

Although he continued to sharpen his game, he didn’t get a chance to start during Michigan’s two Big Ten tournament games, including the second-round loss to Wisconsin.

He was not named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team, and even with all the energy he brought off the bench, Indiana forward Will Sheehey was the one named the Big Ten’s Sixth Man.

McGary’s struggles extended off the basketball court, as well. As a bulky 6-foot-10 forward, he began to struggle with his weight as his focus on his diet waned. He ballooned to 274 pounds just a month and a half ago, when he began working with Beilein’s staff to track what he was eating and how he could get his weight down.

Yet, even without any accolades to support McGary’s development, and as he continued to struggle with his weight, Beilein and his staff decided they needed to make a change as they began to prepare for Michigan’s run to the Final Four.

McGary would get his shot to shine, and it’s an opportunity he’s taken full advantage of during the past three weeks, transforming from a bench player to a possible lottery pick in this summer’s NBA draft.

READY TO STEP UP

“There came a point that I didn’t want to get off to bad starts,” Beilein said Sunday. “He [McGary] was really getting so many of the things that are really important to his success, these incremental steps he’s been making over the last month. We saw enough of them to say, ‘Let’s not worry about who comes off the bench as much right now because he’s ready to help us from the get-go.’ ”

Since then, McGary has broken onto the scene and been one of the key contributors to lead the Wolverines to Atlanta.

He shot 50 percent or better from the field in each of Michigan’s first five NCAA tournament games. He averaged 16 points and 11.6 rebounds per game, posting a double-double in three of his past four games.

McGary said he attributes some of his success simply from getting away from the gauntlet of the Big Ten, where opponents studied him carefully. But he added that with his increasing success, teammates began to lean on him as more than just the emotional leader he has become during practice and in timeouts late in the game.

“My teammates are beginning to trust me a lot more, and my confidence level has skyrocketed,” he said. “Them trusting me so much and having confidence in me on the court, I bring the energy and they feed off of that, and our team is just peaking at the right moment, and I am just glad to still be playing.”

 

We have a saying, ‘Let’s be good before you’re great.’ In this tournament, [McGary's] played good. He’s made a good team a great team because he’s played that way.
-- John Beilein

As McGary’s skills have improved, so has his health. He said that during the past month and a half, he has dropped nearly 20 pounds as a result of his diet. He said he has more energy to run the floor, even as a forward, more adeptly than he ever has. McGary said his weight loss, combined with his limited playing time earlier in the season, has allowed him to be just the type of impact player his team has needed.

 

“A lot of us are pretty tired during this stretch,” he said. “I might have a little more in me because I have not played as many minutes as these guys, so I maybe have a little extra push in my step.”

Coming into the tournament, he said that he knew, especially in his new role as a starter, that he had to step up his game because of the increased talent his team would face as the tournament progressed. With a national player of the year and several other NBA prospects, McGary knew that when teams keyed in on Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., he may be the open man with the opportunity to carry the Wolverines on his back.

On Saturday against Syracuse and its challenging 2-3 zone, McGary proved to be the difference. Burke scored just seven points, while Hardaway Jr. struggled to shoot just four of 16 from the floor.

McGary, though, could be seen running the floor, pushing the pace, taking the ball coast-to-coast for dunks and working to prevent the Orange from setting up their defensive scheme.

In the halfcourt, McGary was more of a facilitator than he had been all season, racking up six assists. He had recorded just 18 coming into the semifinal. Often, he would rifle the ball out to the open man on the perimeter after grabbing an offensive rebound or catching a pass in one swift motion, sometimes without even looking.

His recent stats and success, though, haven’t surprised his teammates, Horford said, who knew all season long the type of player he had the potential of being.

He just needed a chance.

“The opportunity to be able to play in games and get that experience that you can’t replicate anywhere else has been key for Mitch and Mitch’s success,” Horford said. “It’s not surprising to any of us that he’s doing what he’s doing.”

Yet, even in his statistical success, McGary hasn’t strayed from his role as the emotional leader his team needs down the stretch. The emotion he showed in the late-game huddle against Syracuse was just McGary being McGary, he said.

“I was just trying to pump up my team,” he said. “I like to play with a lot of energy.

“We do these two-minute drills in practice where you get a point if you stop and score, and it’s called two-minute drills, two-minute games. We had three minutes left on the clock and I said, ‘This is a two-minute game right here. Let’s get a couple stops, execute on offense. Couple stops, execute on offense.’ I obviously emphasized it a little bit more, but it pumped the team up.”

Although Syracuse inched within a single point, the Wolverines pulled out the victory. Beilein said his team wouldn’t be where they are, playing for a national championship, if McGary hadn’t taken on the big role his coaches asked him to fill this postseason.

“We have a saying, ‘Let’s be good before you’re great,’ ” Beilein said. “In this tournament, he’s played good. He’s made a good team a great team because he’s played that way.”