AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Shaka Smart cried havoc, but Mitch McGary turned out to be the dog of war.
McGary, already a crowd favorite for his willingness to destroy anything in his path in pursuit of a loose ball, turned into a true star Saturday. The freshman had 21 points and 14 rebounds as fourth-seeded Michigan routed fifth-seeded VCU, 78-53, at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
With his teammates shredding VCU’s much-hyped “Havoc” full-court press, McGary was allowed to do what he does best — dominate with size and effort. He made 10 of 11 field-goal attempts, hit his only free throw, pulled down four offensive rebounds, had a steal, an assist and even successfully brought the ball up the floor on one possession.
He was also diving onto the floor, flying into cheerleaders and crashing into both benches — all part of his obsessive chase of the basketball.
“That’s Mitch McGary,” Trey Burke said. “That’s what he does.”
McGary’s complete performance might have been a surprise to basketball fans, but Smart already knew what to expect.
“I saw Mitch McGary quite a bit in AAU ball, and there’s a reason that, at one point during his senior season, he was considered one of the two or three best high school players in the country,” Smart said. “He’s had that motor since high school, and Michigan has given him incredible guidance.”
It hasn’t always been easy. For much of the season, McGary played more like a overexcited puppy than a trained attack dog. For every loose ball he got, there was a ball dropped out of bounds or a silly traveling violation.
“It’s taken some time to get him to channel that energy the right way, but we’ve seen a tremendous spike in him understand how to make a lot of good plays instead of trying to make one great play,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “Before, he might have been trying to bring the ball up against the press and trying to dunk things. Now he’s just making solid plays.”
McGary’s impact on the game can be summed up by one first-half play, as Briante Weber tried to follow Trey Burke through traffic. When Weber turned the corner, he found McGary setting a screen in his path. McGary barely moved as Weber slammed into him and crumbled to the floor.
“Coach likes us to set drag screens, and I saw Trey coming, so I set him a good hard screen and the man happened to run into my chest,” McGary said, as his teammates laughed. “It was a legal screen, and I didn’t mean for him to fall down. It just happened that way.”
Of course, McGary only had his big game because of the way his teammates took apart VCU’s press. The team that leads the nation in forcing turnovers only got 12 on Saturday, and most of them were in half-court sets. The Rams focused on denying Burke the ball in the backcourt, and were largely successful, but couldn’t stop Tim Hardaway Jr. and Spike Albrecht from bringing the ball up the floor.
“Give Michigan credit, because they have a lot of good ball handlers,” Smart said. “I think Burke is the best of them, but Hardaway did a nice job against us, and he got some help from (Nik) Stauskas. We had stretches when we bothered then, but they did a nice job.”
To make things worse for VCU, as soon as Michigan got the ball across midcourt, they had an endless supply of scoring options. Hardaway and Burke were getting open 3-pointers, Glenn Robinson III was slicing to the basket and, no matter what, McGary was waiting under the basket.
“I was just getting open looks and everyone was getting me the ball,” said McGary, who finished with career highs in both points and rebounds. “Everyone was feeding off my energy, and things just kept building.”
Eventually, the Wolverines found themselves leading by 31 points and heading to their first Sweet 16 since Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard got them there in 1994.
“This is great for the program because this is always what we are trying to do,” Beilein said. “At the University of Michigan, we want to be champions. During the season, we want to be Big Ten champions, and during the NCAA tournament, we want to be national champions. Right now, we’re in a really good place.”
Now the Wolverines head for the South Regional semifinals at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas. That might not be a great omen — the Michigan football team started its season by getting blown out there by Alabama — but for a team with McGary as an emotional leader, a football stadium is the perfect venue.
“I guess I have the mentality of a football player — that’s what I played growing up,” he said. “I’m just a hard-nosed, blue-collar guy who likes to do the nitty-gritty stuff.