AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – As a public service, we offer a warning today to the players at Kansas and North Carolina. Whichever group of you prevails Sunday and advances to the Sweet 16 on Friday in Dallas, watch Mitch McGary’s eyes.
While the eyes may seem the least dangerous part of Michigan’s 6-foot-10, 255-pound freshman center, trust us: Paying careful attention to them could save a teammate from a teeth-rattling sudden stop. All McGary needs to initiate the DeathScreen 4.0 is a moment of eye contact from Michigan point guard Trey Burke. So if you see McGary and Burke lock eyes, start yelling “SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEN” at Pantera volume.
None of VCU’s players warned teammate Briante Weber on Saturday. So the unsuspecting 165-pound Weber slammed into McGary at full speed and wound up crumpled in a heap on the floor of the Palace of Auburn Hills. Of all the ways McGary effected Michigan’s 78-53 win against the Rams, his screen –- which freed Burke for a jumper -– served the most jarring notice VCU’s Havoc defense was not the most physical entity on the floor.
“It’s a point guard’s dream, especially if you’re getting pressured like that,” Michigan backup Spike Albrecht said. “You can set your guy up and run him right into Mitch, and Mitch is just going to knock his head off.”
Now add soft hands, springy legs, a wide booty made for boxing out and an insatiable desire to outrun his man. That’s McGary, who set career marks for points (21) and rebounds (14) two days after joining the starting lineup for a round of 64 win against South Dakota State. “Our X-factor,” Burke called McGary.
The Rams, who thrive on outhustling and disrupting opponents, had no answer for a big man who hustled at their speed. McGary didn’t make many tough shots; he feasted on putbacks and superior position. He kick-started Michigan’s break after rebounds with crisp outlet passes such as the three quarter-court laser to Glenn Robinson III for an easy layup in the first half. “That’s the most underrated part of his game,” Michigan guard Nik Stauskas said. “When he gets rebounds, he sees the floor very well. Throughout the year, there were glimpses where you just go, ‘Wow, I didn’t know he could do that.’”
The Wolverines did know McGary was an immovable object, though. Twice, McGary flattened Rams with screens Saturday. The screen on Weber near the end of the first half drew more attention because VCU coach Shaka Smart had to be restrained by an assistant from screaming at an official for not calling a foul on McGary. “I set a good, hard screen -– and the man happened to run into my chest,” McGary said. “It was a legal screen. I didn’t mean intentionally for him to fall down, but it happened.”
On Michigan’s bench, assistant coach Bacari Alexander got flashbacks to his playing days at Detroit Mercy. There, he had several collisions with uniformed oak tree Brad Miller, a seven-footer who parlayed his physicality at Purdue into a 14-year NBA career. “When you have guys who are 6-11 or seven feet setting screens, those aren’t screens,” Alexander said. “Those are walls.”
Those walls apparently get erected often at Michigan’s practices. “When you don’t call them out,” Stauskas said, “it’s going to hurt.”
Big Ten opponents got a smaller taste of McGary as he backed up junior Jordan Morgan most of the season. But Morgan has been slow to recover from an ankle injury and his play has been especially off since his potential game-winning tip-in rimmed out against Indiana.
Meanwhile, McGary continued to improve. McGary started practice last fall weighing 270 pounds, which was jarring because he had reported to Ann Arbor weighing 255. “He ballooned up a little bit, maybe enjoying the cafeteria maybe a bit too much,” Alexander said. “Then he got back and recalibrated with his discipline.” McGary played himself back to 255 and then did all the things that had made the Chesterton, Ind., native a four-star recruit with offers from Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and Florida. Before the NCAA tournament began, Michigan coaches decided McGary deserved to start. He has not disappointed, averaging 17 points and 12.5 rebounds in two games.
But McGary remains a freshman and he hasn’t faced a quality opponent in the post during the tournament. He will in Kansas center Jeff Withey or North Carolina forward James Michael McAdoo. It has only been two weeks since McGary committed four fouls in eight minutes against Indiana, so he must be careful not to let that hustle and youthful exuberance get him in trouble Friday. Alexander, who works primarily with Michigan’s big men, said he believes McGary has corrected some of the issues that got him in quick foul trouble in the past. Instead of trying to use his hands to disrupt opponents, he is learning to move his feet and get all of his considerable girth in front of an opponent. “He’s doing a great job,” Alexander said, “of using his chest versus his limbs.” McGary certainly used his chest Saturday in the most violent collision involving a Michigan athlete since Wolverines tailback Vincent Smith met South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney in the Outback Bowl. Who knows? Maybe McGary and Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan -– one of the top prospects in the 2014 NFL draft –- can trade notes this week before McGary heads to Dallas. “I kind of have a football mentality,” McGary said. “I played it growing up, but that’s just my mentality. Just a hard-nosed, blue-collar guy who likes to do the nitty-gritty stuff.”