In the aftermath of Michigan’s convincing 78-53 victory over Virginia Commonwealth Saturday, the consensus amongst fans and pundits alike was the Wolverines are a different team than most projected them to be prior to the tournament. That’s due in large part to exemplary “Big Dance” performances of their freshman. In two games Glenn Robinson III notched a combined 35 points and 15 rebounds, while missing a grand total of four shots. Such showings aren’t without precedent for the athletic forward, but they’d not been seen weeks. However, as impactful as his reemergence was, Mitch McGary’s 34 points and 23 rebounds in the two contests may have been even more significant.
The bruising big man’s sudden emergence from bench-spark to impact-starter signals a significant change to the complexion of the Maize & Blue moving forward. The key now is for him to continue being a dynamic presence… a task his teammates believe he’s fully capable of accomplishing.
"I realized this in AAU… I believe he can do that every night if he comes out with the right mentality,” Robinson III said. “I seen some type of focus before the game from him and he's always laughing, goofing around, being himself but there wasn't a lot of that. It was more determination."
"I thought he did a great job of coming in, providing energy, diving on the ground -- anything we needed, he got done. He's the engine that gets us rolling, “said Robinson III.”If he's having a great night and he's energetic, we all seem to get energetic and get hyped up and start playing defense and do all the little things that we might not do without him."
McGary himself realized the need for his increased role partially because of the win-or-go home circumstance. Another factor was the prodding from team leader, Trey Burke.
“He just said (bring the energy) right from jump,” McGary recalled. “The last game (versus South Dakota State) I had good energy and he just said to do the exact same things as last game… so I did.”
“The team depends on me to bring the energy no matter what… no matter if we’re down 20 or up 20. No matter what I have to bring the energy, either coming off the bench or starting, I have to dive on the floor for loose balls. That’s my style of play, that’s my mentality, and my team depends on me.”
The Wolverines also depend on the physical tone he sets. It’s yet another aspect of the job McGary fully embraces, as evidenced by his perfectly legal leveling of VCU sophomore guard Briante Weber Saturday.
“I didn’t even do it intentionally,” he said regarding the decleating. “It’s just my style of play. I screened for Trey and (Weber) ran right into my chest.”
Its plays like that that have also caught the attention of a head coach from a different sport on Michigan’s campus.
“Coach Hoke has talked to me about maybe joining the team and playing some spring ball or something,” McGary said with a smile. “He’s like, ‘yeah, we have to get you on the football field’ jokingly, but I think he’s serious.”
McGary’s football days are nevertheless behind him. He’s more interested in revisiting his more recent past on the AAU circuit. There he was a dominant force as a member of the SYF Players alongside teammates Robinson III, Spike Albrecht, and Max Bielfeldt. Saturday proved to be just like old times.
“It reminded me of AAU the way VCU gets up and down the court,” McGary stated. “I was having fun running up and down the court (with) nonstop energy. That’s me, that’s what I like to do, and that’s how we won.”
Getting the talented freshman to the point where he can be that type of factor from start of the game instead of off the bench has been a process guided by a few major influences. One is former Chesterton (IN) high teammate, Zack Novak, and the other is Michigan big man coach, Bacari Alexander.
“(Novak) texted me a couple weeks ago saying to keep up the good work, and good luck in the tournament,” McGary recalled. “He had that toughness to him and he gave that to me a little bit. He just told me my freshman year (at Chesterton) I was real immature and I needed to grow maturity-wise. He just told me to leave it all on the court. Play how you want to play, but leave it all on the court no matter what. That’s what I did.”
“Uncle Bacari, yeah he’s helped me a lot,” McGary later added. “Going through transition of coming off the bench to starting… I was more of a role player. I kind of had to step up at a certain time. This is what Michigan’s all about. This is what I live for; this is why I came to Michigan, so we can keep winning.”
Now that McGary is a definite part of the Michigan scouting report, the winning recipe may sometimes look a little different for the Maize & Blue. That much became clear when the Wolverines managed a 15 point victory over South Dakota State despite just six points coming from Burke.
“It’s a tremendous confidence boost for everybody on the team,” said McGary. “I know that going into our next game teams are going to actually back off of Trey. I think they’ll put more attention on maybe Tim or me and relieve pressure on him to get easy buckets. “
“We still have things to work on and we’re going to grow from this. Even though we played a good game (versus VCU), we’re still going to grow from this, and have a good game in the Sweet Sixteen.”
One of the last keys to achieving another winning effort could be making sure McGary’s breakfast on game day is every bit as fulfilling as his last one.
“I had some French toast, sausage, bacon, and the omelet lady gave me a tremendous omelet,” he said. “I’m telling you, it was really good. Everybody had an omelet, but I had a ham, tomato, and cheese omelet, which hit the spot. “