ATLANTA — A year ago, Mitch McGary was in the final weeks of his postgraduate year at a private school in New Hampshire and preparing to make a leap to playing Division I basketball.
On Friday, McGary sat in a wing of a building adjacent to a downtown Atlanta sports complex, discussing what’s gotten him to the point of being an emerging inside power for the Michigan men’s basketball team and what’s helped get the Wolverines to the program’s first Final Four in 20 years.
The Wolverines (30-7) face Syracuse (30-9) in a national semifinal at 8:49 p.m. today at the Georgia Dome, and when discussing his path, McGary made an admission.
At certain points of disbelief, he pinched himself. Those were recent pangs.
“I think twice, after the Kansas game and then after the Florida game,” said McGary, a 20-year-old native of Chesterton, Ind. “In the locker room, it’s like, ‘man, we’re going to the Final Four. It’s kind of surreal.’ We took a day off, we embraced that moment, and then started focusing on Syracuse.”
After struggling in his first months in Ann Arbor, McGary can diagnose what’s fueled his breakout postseason for the Wolverines, one in which he’s dealt with plantar fasciitis — inflammation of the connective tissue in the sole of the foot — through the course of the year.
As a healthy 6-foot-10, 255-pound forward, his confidence level has gone up. His weight has gone down. He’s ditched the pizza, hamburgers, and candy that he once craved when he was sidelined with an ankle injury earlier this season.
“It helps the motor even more,” McGary said of his weight loss, which he estimated at 20 pounds. “I’m a high-motor guy who likes to get going and just stay active. Now, with less weight and having more endurance, I’m able to stay on the court.”
That has given Michigan a definitive inside presence — McGary hasn’t been afraid to tangle with other big men, including Kansas center Jeff Withey, who questioned the validity of McGary’s height before the Jayhawks’ Sweet 16 loss to the Wolverines.
McGary answered with 25 points and 14 rebounds against the Jayhawks, and leads the Wolverines in tournament scoring (17.5 points) and rebounds (11.5) in four games.
“They’re the best offensive team in the tournament,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said of the Wolverines. “I think they were the best offensive team coming into the tournament except their center hadn’t stepped up yet. Now their freshman center, McGary, has really stepped up. They’re a different team with his presence inside. He’s now in some games dominant. Before, he was not a factor. He’s a dominant offensive player.”
While he admitted he hasn’t gotten a chance to watch much film of Michigan this year, Syracuse forward Rakeem Christmas said the Orange will be vigilant in preparation for the Wolverines and for McGary.
“Whenever he gets the ball, he’s trying to go in to score,” Christmas said of McGary. “We have to try to stop him from doing that. You have to try to push him around a bit, and whenever he gets the ball, you have to try to make him set a bad shot.”
McGary also has the benefit of playing with a set of talented guards, including Trey Burke, named on Friday as the John Wooden Award winner as the nation’s top college basketball player.
“Being on the court with him, he sees a lot of things that other guards don’t see,” McGary said. “He knows when it’s time to score or pass it and finds easy drop-offs. That’s why I’ve been playing so well in the tournament. It is purely off his play. Everyone keys in on him.
“I’m just putting the ball in the basket.”
On Tuesday, ESPN NBA analyst Chad Ford projected McGary as a potential first-round NBA draft selection — if he decides to turn pro. McGary said earlier this week that he planned to return to Michigan for his sophomore season but asked again Friday in Atlanta, McGary sounded like a college athlete who was unsure of his initial statement, and deferred any further comment about his future until after the Final Four.
By then, he might reward himself with a slice of pizza or a big, greasy cheeseburger. Or he might be getting ready for the NBA. Or he might be preparing himself for another season with the Wolverines.
Or he might just pinch himself one more time.
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.