Whether standing or seated, Mitch McGary carries himself proudly. His head is up, his shoulders are back, his sheer size and muscularity readily apparent without the need for any posturing. His impressive build, especially when seen from up close, makes it all that much harder to believe that at any point recently, McGary was out of shape.
But as he's become the talk of the NCAA tournament with his breakout performances and physical dominance, everyone from McGary to his teammates to his coaches more or less said that was the case as little as six weeks ago. McGary says he was carrying 20 pounds more than he currently is, a lack of dedication to fitness, nutrition and individual skill development hampering his ability to make an impact.
In asking multiple Wolverines, there wasn't an intervention, per se, not a single moment where a bunch of them got together and told McGary things needed to change. But a chorus of voices got into McGary's head and finally got through to him. Habits changed, discipline was regained, and the Wolverines are now seeing the fruits of that improvement in the man they call "Monster" as they roll into the Final Four.
"He was a little bit overweight. He got in shape, learned his role," said close friend and classmate Glenn Robinson III. "It's kind of hard to come in and want to accept your role, especially when you've been the leading scorer all your life. He learned his role, learned the offense, and learned what Coach B wants from him. We're just lucky it's happening at this time of the season."
After the dominant win over Florida in the regional final, head coach John Beilein said the seeds of putting McGary into the starting lineup in place of junior Jordan Morgan were planted during Michigan's slow start against Penn State in the Big Ten tournament. The Wolverines won that game, and Morgan started again the next day against Wisconsin, but in those two games, McGary played a total of 46 minutes to Morgan's 18. Beilein said he figured Morgan would be mature enough to handle coming off the bench and still be productive, and that he wanted to "make sure if we're going to play right now, let's put the best five players on the floor to start."
That's been the case since the start of the NCAA tournament, and McGary has gone off. In just under 30 minutes a game in the NCAAs, he's averaging 17.5 points and 11.5 rebounds a game on 33-for-55 shooting. He's also chipping in almost three steals per contest as his skill level has combined with his hustle and better conditioning to allow him to make impact plays all over the court.
"Being in better shape, being able to run and have that better endurance, stay on the court for longer periods of time," McGary said about his physical evolution has helped him improve his team. "Just helping the team any way I can."
His performances have been especially eye-opening since both Kansas and Florida more or less disrespected him in the press conferences leading up to those games. Jayhawks big man Jeff Withey wondered aloud whether McGary is really the 6-foot-10 at which he's listed. McGary subsequently destroyed Kansas with a 25-and-14, and was the primary reason the Wolverines remained in touching distance long enough to mount their frantic late comeback.
Despite that, the next day Gators' center Patric Young claimed that most of McGary's production was thanks to Trey Burke creating easy baskets for him. While that may be true, in part, it ignores McGary's own skill level and his ability to impact the game through rebounding and steals, as well. McGary had eight early points along with five boards that set the tone in the Wolverines' 20-point win.
Next up is Syracuse, a team that's ripe to be exploited by a player with McGary's skill set. If Michigan can get the ball into the heart of the Orange zone, or get good looks from the perimeter, McGary should be well positioned to receive drop-off passes on the baseline or get his own buckets off the offensive glass. Earlier this month, it would have seemed crazy to be talking about McGary as one of the major keys in a national semifinal, but here he is, in shape and playing his best basketball as a collegian. And despite how much of a revelation he looks like, this doesn't seem to surprise his teammates that much at all. "I knew we could get this. I don't know if coach knew that. I don't know if anyone else who hasn't been around Mitch knew that, but I knew we could get that Mitch out of there," Robinson said. "I've watched him play, I've played with him so many times. This is what he's capable of every night. That's what I expect out of him. Same goes for him, that's what he expects out of himself."