When news broke that Mitch McGary would likely be lost for the season due to back surgery, gone with him were any external expectations for championship success. That put in great perspective the magnitude of his loss. But as Michigan went on its unexpected rise to the top of the Big Ten and potentially a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the appreciation for the significance of the preseason All-American’s absence waned greatly. It’s almost as if some have forgotten his enormous impact during last year’s memorable run to the national championship game. Simply put, Mitch McGary put on one of the best tournament performances in program history. The replays that have been all over television the last few weeks serve as an effective reminder of just how magical a showing it was.
“I saw the Syracuse Final Four game last week and it was pretty cool,” McGary said after Michigan’s 72-69 victory over Ohio State Saturday. “I got to get back to that. We’ve got to get back to that.”
That sounded almost as if Michigan’s dormant big man is preparing to do his best Willis Reed impression. Could a return during the Big Dance really happen?
“You never know,” he replied. “I would love to.”
“I don’t really have a timetable (for a comeback). We get back to Dallas… you’ll see.”
It’s hard to tell whether that was pure hope or legitimate promise dripping from those words, but it’s clear that the desire to physically be a part of his team’s success is there. For the moment what’s known is he has progressing steadily since having his back procedure back in January.
“It is like week 12 (since having the surgery) and that’s when I can start gradually jumping,” McGary explained. “That’s what the doctor had planned on.”
“I can start jumping next week. Just gradually, not like jumping out of the gym like Glenn or something like that (laughter). I’m starting to do a lot of stuff in the pool, pool workouts, just trying to get my legs back.”
“This past week was the first time I ran on the court, like hardwood court. Usually it would be on an underwater treadmill. I’m starting to feel a lot better, start to move a lot more, be more active. It is a slow process, but it is coming along.”
Pacing himself in anything, let alone in getting back to doing one of the thing he loves most, has been an immense challenge. That’s where sage advice from a trusted friend has helped him endure.
“I actually leaned heavily on Spike’s older brother,” stated McGary. “He had the same surgery. He had the same back problem. He has given me a few pointers on what to do, a lot of stretching, lot of core strength. Taking that in and actually putting it to use.”
“(There’s discomfort) only with sudden movements. As I get stronger and I keep developing strength and stuff… skills and running and doing whatever… then I’ll be back to normal.”
When the time finally comes for McGary’s readiness to be determined, the decision won’t be his alone. He will rely both on his doctors and his coaches to help him assess when he can compete at a level that won’t jeopardize his health long term while also helping his team.
“It is how I feel,” McGary said regarding the criteria for his return. “I want to have a long career so I don’t really want to injure myself again. It is kind of timing and make sure that my back is 100% healthy and I’m not going to reinjure it again. Until I feel 100%, I probably won’t be able to play.”
In the meantime he will continue being the most inconspicuous cheerleader in the country. If his sideline theatrics are an indication of how close he is to stepping back on the floor, the odds of his return might just be higher than most suspect.
“Coach (Beilein) right after surgery was giving me some crap because I would jump around and stuff. Now he doesn’t mind as much because I’m getting a lot healthier and getting back in shape.”
“(Holding back) is tougher than it looks. I’m a person that has a lot of energy and a lot of excitement, so when I do something I’m going to do it all out. I have to restrain myself a lot and it is difficult.”
Fortunately for him is he finally at the point where he can start releasing more of that pinned -p energy. He is finally at the point where he is feeling a part of the team again.
“I’m shooting and stuff,” McGary reported. “I do skill work probably four times a week on my own every morning. I’m in the gym shooting a couple hundred times a day at least and just trying to get the feel back because I was out for a couple of months. Some of the guys when I mess around and make goofy shots… before the game I made a three. They think I lost it or something. I didn’t lose it, I just got hurt.”
“It is difficult. Before the last month or so, I never would be at practice for like full time. I would always do my rehab and I would never be in film session because I would be doing rehab and half practice. It is difficult, but now I’m back and my schedule is where I can do rehab, still be in film, and still participate 100% with the team. I kind of lost the bond with a couple of the guys, but I live with them so I see them afterwards and during class and stuff. It is good to be back with them 100%. I love this team. They’re my brothers and I don’t think I would be able to get through this surgery and get through this adversity without them.”
Maybe, just maybe he’ll return the favor by helping them get through the adversity that’s sure to come in the tournament.