The Mitch McGary
case looks bad for all involved. (David J. Phillip/AP)
Michigan forward Mitch McGary smoked marijuana in March, tested positive for doing so later during the NCAA tournament and as a result faced a one-season ban from competition due to failing an NCAA-administered drug screen. He decided instead to enter the NBA draft, because of course he would. All of this was announced Friday morning through McGary and Michigan, and the morning wasn't over before it became another logic-be-damned example of the NCAA's bureaucratic inconsistency that victimized a player.
Rules are rules and McGary broke one. He's accountable for that. The common sense of the rule can be debated. So too can the consequences of breaking it, especially when an organization and its member schools can't even agree on what those consequences are.
Set aside the preposterousness of a season-long ban for using marijuana. The NCAA, which only takes over the testing during championships and bowl games, announced a revision just 10 days ago that says a player will be suspended for half a season if one of its tests comes back positive for street drugs, a rule that takes effect Aug. 1. If McGary had flunked the same test administered by Michigan, he faced a week-long ban from team activities and a suspension from 10 percent of the season, or three games. That's the penalty for a first-time offender. A player's second positive test spurs Michigan to issue a one-third season suspension. So the NCAA deems the first evidence of marijuana use a substantially more serious offense than the very school the athlete plays for, a school that belongs to the NCAA.
Try to reconcile it, and it's enough of a headache to make you advocate the use of controlled substances.
However assertive you believe Michigan's policies to be, they are not uniform with every other college in the Big Ten -- Illinois, for instance, does not suspend players for a first positive marijuana test -- let alone every other program in the country. Of course, a standard policy for all schools doesn't seem feasible. A religion-based university like BYU can't be expected to abide the looser restrictions at a public school on the other side of the country, and vice-versa. It's not a one-size-fits-all issue. But it also shouldn't expose such a laughable disconnect between the institutions and their own governing body.
The NCAA's desire to ensure that its biggest games aren't sullied by performance-enhancing drugs is understandable, and a strong punishment for a positive test in that context is perfectly defensible.
The context of a marijuana-related bust, however, demands a different approach, one that aligns more closely with that of the schools managing the athletes daily. McGary issued a statement Friday in which he said he took “full responsibility for this poor choice.” Though he also told Yahoo! that the “NCAA really doesn't show any mercy,” he seemed resigned to the undeniable truth that his actions had ramifications. A life-altering punishment for a first-time offender after a marijuana bust – and even at a half-season, that's what the NCAA's discipline represents in McGary's case – is beyond senseless. Just ask all the NCAA-member schools that apparently agree.
2. Latest early departure a big blow for Wolverines
Speaking of ramifications, Michigan went from a team that seemed capable of challenging Wisconsin in the Big Ten next year to a team in desperate search of answers. Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and McGary have all elected to leave school early this month and it's entirely unclear what they've left behind in Ann Arbor, besides a few years of eligibility.
Clearly, it was no sure thing that McGary would have returned to Michigan anyway. While his averages of 7.8 points and 6.6 rebounds in 47 career games were hardly pupil-dilating numbers, he was a former five-star recruit and a breakout star in the team's run to the 2013 national title game who had to announce he was coming back to school a year ago. Also, he had already missed significant time due to injury, having played only eight games this past season before needing back surgery.
With the graduation of Jordan Morgan and the transfer of Jon Horford, Michigan has now lost five of its top nine minutes-loggers from 2013-14. Junior-to-be Caris LeVert, the team's third-leading scorer last season (12.9 points per game), will be the only returning player who averaged even 8.0 points per game last year. If he can add another offseason's worth of muscle he could take the offensive reins the same way Stauskas did this past season, and his length and defensive playmaking ability could create a potent two-way force.
LeVert's supporting cast isn't nearly as proven. Guards Derrick Walton Jr. (7.9 points per game) and Zak Irvin (6.7) must make sizable leaps as sophomores. And the contributions from top 100 forward recruits Kameron Chatman and D.J. Wilson must be immediate and fairly prolific if the Wolverines are to maintain their place at the top of the Big Ten. Michigan recovered nicely from the early departures of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. at this time last year, so coach John Beilein has already proven he can reload. There just will be less raw material with which to do so in 2014-15. This rash of offseason departures doesn't portend a team plunging to the Big Ten basement, but McGary's return would have provided a much less obscured view of the top.
3. McGary's draft stock taking a hit
As for McGary's future, he becomes just the latest cautionary tale for agents to whisper about into the ears of players weighing possible first-round draft position against a return to campus for another year. In April of 2013, McGary was a possible lottery pick. In April of 2014, he has a borderline first-round spot, being listed as the No. 30 pick in the latest mock draft from Draft Express. His injury, still-developing game and now the positive drug test will undoubtedly have teams examining if he's worth a first-round selection.
If his drug use was indeed a one-time thing, as McGary claims, that will help convince teams it's not anything they need to worry about. The back surgery in January and the eight-game sophomore season remain in plain sight, however, and and have created questions about his health and performance he still must answer. Fortunately for him, the NBA draft is in at least some ways a meritocracy. If McGary can prove that the injury and off-court issues are not issues at all, he'll land at least in the vicinity of where he could have been drafted a year ago. It's just much more uncertain now than it was last April.