The lob pass sailed from the top of the key toward the left side of the rim, where it met the hands of Michigan's Glenn Robinson III. The sophomore forward drove the ball through the iron in the first half of a win over Texas last weekend, sending a jolt through the Bradley Center. It also cued up the biggest spirit squad member in the NCAA tournament. Mitch McGary rose from the bench with a face devoid of expression, extended his arms and began flapping them like bird wings.
Two minutes later, Wolverines center Jordan Morgan tomahawked a dunk off a screen-and-roll, and McGary shot up again. A different play required different choreography. So he extended his arms once again, but this time kept them straight, tilting back and forth like an airplane enduring some really bad turbulence.
It was one year ago that McGary flew into the national consciousness during Michigan's run to the national title game. He was a preseason All-America for 2013-14 before a back injury and eventual surgery sidelined him after just eight games and rendered him this month's most unlikely cheerleader. The only way McGary can take flight now is by pretending to.
“I'm not out there,” McGary said. “I can't give them the energy like I want to. But the energy on the bench -- I can try to give them a little something.”
A Big Ten regular-season title, a spot in the conference tournament final and now a return to the Sweet 16 to face Tennessee in Indianapolis on Friday – few anticipated that level of success when McGary struggled with back issues and eventually had to go under the knife in January. He was an emergent force who posted four NCAA tournament double-doubles as a freshman, averaging 14.3 points and 10.7 rebounds in six tourney games. He averaged 9.5 points and 8.3 rebounds this year before being lost for the year.
Now with his back sufficiently healed – and his ability to move regained – McGary can join in the fun even if he can't join in the action. “Mitch has done a great job embracing all of those neck-up intangibles that he'll need when he's in a position to return to the game,” Wolverines assistant Bacari Alexander said. “He's operating under a heightened sense of urgency. Here's a guy who's eager to return at some point, so I see a heightened level of focus in rehab. Now that he's back in the practice environment, I see him offering advice to others. Not that he didn't do this in the past – he's doing it much, much more.”
He can't do much more than that. As of last weekend in Milwaukee, he hadn't jumped on a court since the surgery. As teammates shot free throws during Michigan's lone open practice last weekend, McGary lingered near the baseline, spinning a basketball on his finger and attempting to twist his arm around it as he did. With 13 minutes left in the workout, McGary shifted to center court for a simple back-and-forth passing drill. The next day, he returned to the locker room after a closed practice with his tank top casually slung around his neck, which someone noted looked like a cape. “Of course,” McGary said. “I'm Superman.”
He won't come to anyone's rescue. So instead, he acts like the most decorated walk-on in college basketball history.
Mostly in conjunction with freshman Andrew Dakich, McGary has established a new sign language on the Michigan bench. A Morgan dunk in the NCAA tournament opener against Wofford elicited the bird-wing flap. A Nik Stauskas three-pointer prompted McGary and Dakich to exchange a double-tap, throw up three-goggles and then holster them at their hips. Some moments require a subtler touch: After a Zak Irvin jump shot, McGary merely solicited a high-five. Dakich didn't notice it. But eventually Morgan spied it, smiled and gave it a light slap.
As there is no pregame conference to discuss these signals, they might be the only movements associated with a John Beilein program that aren't planned. “It's normally during the game and stuff like that: 'What do you want to do on this next three?'” Dakich said. “And we'll think of something.”
Which is not to say there is no effort involved.
“I think he's been working out in the mirror,” said Robinson III, McGary's roommate. “He has a lot of spare time.”
That is sort of the point of it all: McGary has a massive void to fill. To help with that, Michigan coaches ask him to track fouls, chart missed block-outs or alert them when the Wolverines are in the bonus. But McGary's outsize personality is the greater contribution.
"I'm still on this team, still part of this team,” McGary said. “Just not playing. Underneath my suit and tie, I still got my imaginary jersey on. Probably not going to wear it. But I'm still on this team and I'm still going to be part of it.”
McGary bypassed the NBA draft to return for his sophomore year. He may or may not feel the need to reestablish his stock with a solid 2014-15 season in Ann Arbor. Either way, Alexander said McGary has attacked rehab rather than enduring it. And when teammates found McGary shooting alone with the mechanical rebound “gun” feeding each attempt back to him, they understood it to carry more meaning than just another stage of recovery.
“Glenn was like shocked – 'Damn, I haven't seen Mitch shoot on the gun in I don't know how long,'” Morgan said. “Sometimes you need something like that to re-spark the flame. He's got a drive about him now that's so different from almost any other time in his career, except maybe this time last year when he blossomed.”
McGary readily acknowledged that much.
“From going through this adversity, coming out of this, I've viewed things a lot differently,” McGary said. “It's made me not take things for granted. (Morgan) gave me a line – when God takes you under the water, he doesn't take you to drown. He takes you to cleanse you.”
Though he couldn't resist a you-never-know tease, McGary regularly insisted last weekend that he would not return in the postseason, mindful of the risks to his basketball future at whatever level. On a radio show Tuesday, Beilein said Michigan had "no plans" for McGary to play -- though he also offered the caveat that "plans can change." So the NCAA tournament's biggest cheerleader ventures to Lucas Oil Stadium this weekend with his uniform rotation most likely restricted to suits and shirts. Before the games in Milwaukee, McGary asked Alexander if he could borrow the assistant coach's Louis Vuitton tie. “Really bold,” Alexander said. McGary's request was rebuffed, as well as his follow-up about where Alexander bought the tie in the first place. Mitch McGary just wants to be something to behold again in March, however he can.