ATLANTA -- It comes as great comfort to Michigan that, if things aren't going well with their Big 10 player of the year or any of their players with NBA last names, they can lean on a guy who couldn't crack the varsity as a high school freshman.
Mitch McGary is now a college freshman and has come a long way, all the way to the national championship game with a new image. He'll be the most accomplished big man on the floor when the Wolverines meet Louisville, after a terrific run in the tournament continued in a big way Saturday against Syracuse.
"Incredible," gushed teammate Tim Hardaway Jr. "If he's playing like this, we will get a national championship."
If? Shouldn't Michigan, at this point, come to expect something solid from the big forward who's progressing from clumsy to confident right before our stunned eyes?
He's leading Michigan in scoring and rebounding in the tourney, an amazing development considering McGary wasn't even an option for most of the season. Just months ago he'd collect his points on put-backs and garbage moments. Now, Michigan is calling his number. He has emerged from nowhere to give the Wolverines an unexpected bonus and is making them more unpredictable and dangerous.
Syracuse couldn't handle McGary in spurts and that's why Michigan controlled much of their semifinal game. It wasn't simple task, the 61-56 Michigan victory. They had to survive their own nervous moments near the end, and were helped by a few calls and some strange Syracuse decisions. But they'll play for a title for the first time since 1993 and seek their first championship since 1989, and this was made possible in part by a player who's looking more reliable by the game.
McGary did most of his damage in the first half, when Michigan took control of the game, but once again was steady throughout. He had 10 points. He collected 12 rebounds, leading everyone. He blocked a pair of shots. And when Syracuse began to collapse on him, paying him respect in the post, he found his teammates. He had six assists, two more than Trey Burke, maybe the finest point guard in the country. Really, a 6-10 forward running the show? With double-figure points in every tournament game along with an 11.6 rebound average, this really is a coming-of-age for McGary, at the right time.
"I'm just finding a role with this team," he said. "Guys need me to step up when needed. I'm just trying to get open looks and make good decisions with the ball and also without it."
McGary's role is simple. Catch the ball when Burke finds him. Don't miss any bunny shots. Plug the lane. Protect the rim. Grab some boards. Typical big man stuff, actually, because Michigan lacks much muscle inside. When McGary is doing this, he provides balance for a team mainly built on finesse. He dropped 21 points and 14 rebounds on VCU, then 25 and 14 against Kansas in the regional title game. He shocked everyone. Including himself. And his coach, but just a bit.
"The fire's been burning," said Michigan coach Jim Beilein. "There's always been something there. He's made these incremental steps all year long. Sometimes there's some really brilliant things he does in there, then there are other times when he has a lot to learn. He embraces all that. That's what made it most impressive. The best is yet to come. He practices hard. He's got a high ceiling to his overall game. His personality and leadership is impressive."
He'll play an important role Monday against Gorgui Dieng of Louisville, who's also using the NCAA tournament to quicken his development. Dieng, however, had a terrible game against Wichita State, where he was mainly MIA. Foul trouble and ineffectiveness limited him to a zero-point, six-rebound game.
Could these two big men, so raw when the season began, be the difference-makers in the biggest game of the year? Right now the situation favors McGary because he offers more polish offensively. And maybe overall.
"Mitch is making it happen," said Glenn Robinson III. "H's come up in a big way for us. What you're seeing right now is the real Mitch. He's for real."