McGary a force for U-M heading into Elite 8

In November, Mitch McGary was just the sideshow to Michigan’s freshman circus. Nik Stauskas was hitting 3-pointers from all over Washtenaw County and Glenn Robinson III was making highlight shows from coast to coast with his spectacular dunks.

McGary? He would make a few cameo appearances as Jordan Morgan’s backup. The crowd loved him, because while he might drop the ball or travel, he was also bound to dive on the floor, fly into the cheerleaders and generally do anything in his power to fire up the Crisler Center crowd.

It was all very amusing. But underneath it all, there was the question “Wait, wasn’t this the kid that was ranked as the best high-school prospect in the country? Shouldn’t he be better than this?”

In March, no one is asking that question. As Stauskas and Robinson faded badly during Big Ten play, McGary started playing more and more. Morgan went down with an ankle injury, and even though Jon Horford took over as the starter, McGary was playing most of the minutes inside.

When the NCAA tournament rolled around, and both Morgan and Horford proved incapable of providing the Wolverines with a consistent post presence, John Beilein bowed to the inevitable. In Michigan’s first-round game against South Dakota State, McGary made his first career start.

McGary had a nice game against the Jackrabbits, finishing with 13 points and nine rebounds, but that was an easy win against a sub-major team. No one really paid attention.

Two days later, Michigan was back at the Palace to face VCU’s Havoc defense. Against the smaller, quicker Rams, McGary didn’t look clumsy any more. The floor burns were still there, and he was even more enthusiastic, but at the end of the game, he had also set career highs of 21 points and 14 rebounds.

Next up, though, was Kansas and 7-foot Jeff Withey. Instead of dwarfing a smaller group, McGary was going to be facing a bigger, agile senior. Going into the game, the big question was whether he would be able to at least occupy enough of Withey’s attention to keep him from dominating the game.

Withey didn’t think so, saying before the game that he expected to dominate McGary.

“He’s not very tall,” Withey said. “We’ll definitely be taking advantage of my height.”

That was a mistake. McGary gets fired up by getting out of bed in the morning, but now he was driven by disrespect. He’s only two inches shorter than Withey, and, even after losing some baby fat in the UM weight room, outweighs the Kansas senior by 20 pounds.

Withey had a decent night, finishing with 12 points, eight rebounds and five blocks, but the nation’s best shot-blocker was helpless when Trey Burke found McGary inside. His layups kept Michigan in the game when the rest of the team looked awed by the Cowboys Stadium stage, and his five offensive rebounds led to more Michigan points.

At the end of the night, he had 25 points and 14 rebounds and, suddenly yet another Wolverine was being talked about as a future NBA player. November’s comedy act is averaging 19.7 points and 12.3 rebounds in the Big Dance, and the Wolverines are still playing.

How impressive has he been? In the last 15 years, only two players have put together back-to-back tournament games with at least 21 points and 14 rebounds. The other one was a sophomore at Oklahoma in 2009 — a kid named Blake Griffin.

McGary and Beilein agree that the change has come down to hard work. Not only has McGary gotten his weight under 260 pounds, but he’s improved his game at both ends of the floor. Far from being a turnover machine, he now throws a mean outlet pass and can turn a steal into a fast-break dunk.

“You have to give coach and his staff an unbeliveable amount of credit,” he said after the Kansas win. “They’ve been the ones teaching me what to do. All I have to do is put in the work.”

Beilein has put McGary through the wringer, but he’s thrilled by the results.

“It has been such a great progression watching him get better and better,” Beilein said. “This is a special young man with a higher ceiling than people realize. He’s still learning how to use his size and his high level of skill.”

He’s going to need all of that Sunday against Florida’s Erik Murphy. Murphy is another tall, slender player, but he’s not glued to the paint like Withey. He’s a 46 percent 3-point shooter, which means McGary will be doing a lot of defending on the perimeter. That will leave room inside for 6-9 Patric Young, meaning that Beilein might have to play Horford or Morgan in an attempt to stop him.

As you might guess when Florida’s center has 156 3-point attempts, the Gators like to shoot from outside. Guards Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario and Michael Frazier will be happy to get into a shooting duel with Burke, Hardaway and Stauskas and hope that Murphy and Young make the difference.

Stopping that will be on the shoulders of McGary. If he passes this test, his stock will rise even higher as he leads the Wolverines to Atlanta and the Final Four.