Pain and disbelief. Those were the feelings experienced by Mitch McGary in the aftermath of being hit with the cheapest of cheap shots by Kansas point guard Elijah Johnson Friday. As if the act itself wasn’t bad enough, the referee’s initial reaction to the play added insult to injury and prompted the freshman center to suggest a review.
“(The ref) said (Johnson) was trying to just make a cut,” McGary said incredulously. “I said, ‘well he can make a cut without hitting me.’ I’m glad they caught it. We got a technical out of it. I missed the free throws, but it’s all good.”
“I was kind of in a daze for a couple of minutes, but then afterwards I was alright.”
Actually, he proved to be more than alright. He was nothing short of outstanding, notching 25 points and 14 rebounds -- his second double-double in as many games. The feat was rendered even more impressive because it came against one of the best defensive big men in the country in Jeff Withey. That McGary thoroughly outplayed his senior counterpart seemed every bit as fitting as the crushing screen he set on Johnson at the end of regulation to free Burke up for the game tying three. The intimidation Johnson had attempted to inflict physically, Withey had attempted to inflict verbally.
“Coach Bacari (Alexander) had said something (about Withey’s comments), then somebody tweeted something at me and said, ‘Withey doesn’t think you’re that good of a player. He says you’re shorter than you look’,” McGary recalled. “I’m every bit of 6-10... 6-10.5. I just took that as a little bit of motivation. I know he is an all American… he is Big 12 defensive player of the year I think… I just went right up against him. I’m not going to back down from anybody. It’s the NCAA tournament and I just felt that the team would have a better chance of winning if I just went right at him.”
That’s exactly the reaction Alexander was looking for. If McGary possessed even a hint of nervousness or uncertainty, Michigan’s big man coach snuffed it out long before the ball was tipped.
“It probably fueled me more than him in the sense that being a former competitor and college athlete myself, every time there’s a situation where you can grab anything to inject some enthusiasm or a sense of urgency in your players, you try to grab onto that as a coach,” Alexander explained. “There was one headline that spoke to a player’s idea that he could dominate us in a 40 minute stanza. I took no hesitation in sharing that with not only Mitch McGary, (but also) Jordan Morgan, Jon Horford, Max Bielfeldt, and even Blake McLimans. Even though Blake didn’t play, he felt like he could at least bite a clove of garlic and blow in a guy’s face (laughter). We were excited and we were pumped. We respect all of our opponents, Kansas is a terrific team, Jeff Withey is an all American candidate… but when it comes to 40 minutes of competition we fear nobody.”
Playing With Edge
That’s the type of swagger this young team exhibited in most of the games it played in this season, and didn’t display in a few of its losses. The Wolverines were determined have that edge versus the Jayhawks, and McGary helped set the tone.
“I think the first couple plays of the game they wanted to punk us,” stated McGary. “(Johnson) giving me the cheap shot… they wanted to make a statement. We just said, ‘nah we’re not going to take this.’ We’ve had teams… Michigan State, Indiana… come out and punk us right from the get go. We’re a stronger and a lot tougher team now. We went through that adversity throughout the season and the Big 10 prepared us very well. I think we fought back and fought through that adversity the whole game and showed them that once we made it overtime, it was our game.”
Indeed it was, but a month ago it may not have been. A month ago McGary may not have been able to be the central figure that he has become during the NCAA tournament. Back then there was an obvious gap between his production and his capability. That doesn’t minimize the outstanding intangibles he has brought all year. It instead highlights both his ability to bring so much more, and the reason for which he is able to do so now.
“I really haven’t worked as hard as I would have liked,” McGary admitted. “Now I’ve done a lot more (like) I should have during the season. I should have been doing that during the season… working on my game every day and just showing the guys that I actually have skills and that I can actually play at this (high of a) level. I think going in to the tournament I just wanted to regroup myself and just sit back and say, ‘alright, if I really want to make a run at this with our team then I’ve got to step it up a notch.’”
“At the beginning of the season I was fine (weight wise). I was eating fine, (then) my metabolism slowed down I guess from getting old (Laughter). I would eat alright, but it wasn’t the healthiest. I would kind of workout and stuff, (but) I got up to about 273- 274. I knew I needed to make a change for our team to win… for our team to be better and also for me and my skills (to show). Just to be on the court (for a longer period of time) I needed to make a change. Me and my strength coach just started a routine of eating healthy, writing down everything like a log of what I eat… what’s healthy and what’s not… and trying to stick to a lot of healthy high protein less fat stuff. I’m down to about 255.”
Turning on the Switch
The “win or go home” nature of March Madness has a way of bringing about such realizations, but that wasn’t the only catalyst for McGary’s “light bulb” moment. A series of conversations also helped spur his improvement.
“The last Indiana game before the big 10 tournament the coaches told me, ‘you just need to stay out of foul trouble if our team (is going) to win.’ Something just clicked. I just said, ‘alright, I’m going to provide the same energy, but better defense, and not foul.’ Some of those fouls on Zeller may not have been fouls (laughter), but that’s basketball for you. And just going into the Big Ten Tournament, we all regrouped there. After the tournament I talked to Glenn and my AAU coach Wayne Brumm and (they were) like, ‘you’ve got skills… just go and show it. Just go play your game, play with hustle, (and) play with heart.’ I’m just doing that and good things are happening for us.”
All told, McGary has morphed into the same type of imposing presence he was two summers ago when dominated the AAU circuit became the #1 big man in the country. His high profile status coming into the college game made opponents testing him a common occurrence. With the spotlight now shining upon him even brighter, efforts to knock him off his game could intensify. But if McGary’s performance against Kansas is an indicator, he’ll be more than ready for the challenge.
Said Alexander, “one of the things that Mitch has done a really nice job of in his maturation is he has identified when people are trying to distract him… whether that be with what took place early in the game with the flagrant 1, or that be Withey with his comments in the media. At the end of the day, time is the friend of truth, and I think at the end of time when (the clock) expired, truth was definitely at the forefront of everybody’s mind.”
In other words, McGary was, and is “the truth.”
For much more from McGary, check out the video interview below.