Mitch McGary came to Michigan as the most anticipated big man since Chris Webber. He wore No. 4. Expectations, obviously, were massive.
Then the season started. And the comparison went out the window.
Webber was a star right away 21 years ago during the 1991-92 season. McGary spent most of his freshman year dealing with a foot injury, trying to shed pounds and figuring out how to get his mind to catch up with his endless motor.
Then the NCAA tournament started. And five games into these thing, you might as well bring back the Webber comparisons.
The Wolverines would not be here—going to the championship game on Monday—without McGary. His latest contribution on Saturday night in a 61-56 win over Syracuse was 10 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and two blocks.
Those numbers are good, but they do not do justice to what McGary meant for his team against the Orange.
Syracuse’s zone suffocated every single opponent on the way to Atlanta.
The big freshman was the pressure release in the middle of the Syracuse zone. Unlike the Big Ten’s best big man in the regular season, Indiana’s Cody Zeller, McGary knew exactly what to do when he got the ball in the heart of the zone. He found teammates on the baseline. He hit a 15-footer from the elbow. And he attacked.
McGary proved that his mind has certainly caught up to his motor.
Also in that masterful stat line for McGary were five offensive rebounds, and he should get the assist on several others that he kept alive by tipping the ball out to his teammates.
It was McGary, not star point guard Trey Burke (seven points on 1-of-8 shooting and four assists), who controlled the game with his vision and feel.
His game brought to mind another Michigan big man with feel, vision and great passing ability: Chris Webber.
From the minute Webber stepped on campus, he was a known commodity.
McGary coming out of nowhere is not an exaggeration. Sure, he showed some flashes during the regular season, but this?
On March 10 in the regular-season finale against Indiana, for instance, McGary scored two points and had two rebounds in eight insignificant minutes in a 72-71 loss.
Michigan limped into the NCAA tournament with a 6-6 record in its final 12 games, including an embarrassing loss to Penn State during that stretch.
When John Beilein inserted McGary into the starting lineup in the first round against South Dakota State, it could have been perceived as a move simply to change things up rather than a real tactical decision.
Then, McGary took off.
He scored 13 points and had 12 rebounds in a 71-56 win against South Dakota State. He followed that up with his real eye-opening performance in the next round against VCU when he scored 21 points on 10-of-11 shooting and had 14 rebounds.
Next up was a showdown with KU’s Jeff Withey, the best defensive big man in the country.
McGary did his part in that game—25 points and 14 rebounds—and kept Michigan close. That’s when Burke had his player-of-the-year moment in three unforgettable minutes at the end of regulation and overtime. Burke would hit a 30-footer to send the game to OT and score 13 points during that stretch.
The rest of his tournament has been mostly forgettable.
Yet somehow the Wolverines will play for the national championship on Monday against Louisville.
Just as McGary was the pressure release against the Syracuse zone, he could be the same against Louisville press.
This from a guy who scored in double figures in only six games during the regular season. He is 5-of-5 in the tourney.
For four-and-a-half months, he was no match for Webber.
Through five tourney games, he’s averaged 16 points and 11.6 rebounds. In six tournament games as a freshman, Webber averaged 16.3 points and 9.7 rebounds.
Webber went for 14 and 11 in the championship against Duke, a forgettable 71-51 loss for Michigan.
McGary is one more great game away from an unforgettable tournament and Most Outstanding Player honors for a player whose game screamed “wait ‘til next year” four weeks ago.