It's been just over a month since Mitch McGary announced his "decision" to go pro. The scare quotes are present because there was no decision to make if McGary were to act at all in his own self-interest.
This sucked. This sucked because Mitch McGary is a joy to watch on the basketball court, a 6'10" mace attached to a giant pendulum, swinging violently back and forth while pausing only to wreck shit. This sucked because he's equally fun off the court, with his unicycle and Bieber-crooning and invaluable coaching advice and generally making Michigan's bench seem like the best party on campus, even if McGary was the only one partying:
What sucked most of all, though, was the feeling that McGary had only scratched the surface of his potential, and factors almost entirely out of his control* limited our exposure to just 12 career starts. Mitch McGary's Michigan career lasted all of 966 minutes played. That's just over 16 hours. That's not nearly enough.
So while I had no trouble writing effusively about Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III after their departures, I've spent the last month struggling to put McGary's career into words. I try to analyze and am left instead with a whole lot of feelings. How does one discuss an athlete hyped to Webberian proportions before he ever enrolled who, apart from one brilliant six-game stretch, never produced as expected yet was beloved all the same?
Probably by ignoring all of that, sitting back, and watching him work, because again: when Mitch McGary was on the court, the only proper response was to drop everything and watch Mitch McGary. He didn't give you a choice in the matter. He grabbed your attention like so many entry passes:
McGary was a defensive force with impeccable timing. His steal rate as a freshman easily surpassed that of Trey Burke, Master of the Halfcourt Pickpocket. He protected the rim. He seemingly rebounded everything. Michigan's defense suffered mightily last season without McGary's interior presence and game-changing ability to erase opponent possessions.
He also boasted remarkable skill for a big man. Defensive boards turned into fast breaks in the time you could say "Unseld." Sometimes he'd eschew that route and just do everything himself. Occasionally he'd finish his coast-to-coast forays with a Rondo-esque fake behind-the-back pass. Speaking of point guard skills, he could thread multiple defenders without looking. Perhaps my favorite McGary play came in the Kansas game, when he hit a baseline turnaround right in Jeff Withey's face like it was routine, not a work-in-progress shot he'd rarely—if ever—utilized to that point.
He did these things while accepting a backup role until it was time to unleash him for the 2013 NCAA Tournament, playing in an offense that relied on him more as a garbageman than a creator, and being the team's #1 scholarship cheerleader and hype man.
Look at the GIF at the top of the post, one more time. It's a 25-point blowout of Northwestern, and there's McGary, showing more effort in one play than some guys do in four years. Sure, he lost the ball out of bounds, but it's not like you can be mad about it; even if it didn't end well, that play brought life to a dull affair, and we were all better for having seen it.
That's how I'll choose to remember Mitch McGary. The flashes of brilliance. The occasional mistakes born from genuine enthusiasm that bordered on excessive. Most of all, the feeling, after everything, that I enjoyed my life just that much more thanks to a big kid from Indiana who seemed to enjoy everything.
*Yes, there's the weed thing. Read that David Roth piece, then think about the punishment for McGary's transgression versus one of another Michigan center—the football one, Graham Glasgow, suspended for part of spring practice and one should-be-a-cupcake non-conference game for drunk driving. I find one of these things far worse than the other, and it's the one that puts other people's lives in actual danger.
Even after his meteoric rise from unheralded three-star to coveted five-star, Glenn Robinson III was never the centerpiece. In John Beilein's 2012 recruiting class, Mitch McGary commanded the most attention. In Michigan's offense over the following two seasons, Trey Burke and Nik Stauskas were the focal points. Playing a game in which the object is to put the ball through the hoop, Robinson was notable for how rarely—and briefly—he touched the rock.
He waited on the periphery, and when the opportunity arose, he struck with such suddenness and forcefulness that even if you forgot he was on the court, you were sure to leave the game talking about whatever he just did. One moment, he was a 30% three-point shooter standing harmlessly in the corner. The next, some unsuspecting defender was attempting to discard a 6'6", 220-pound hat with ill intentions.
Robinson's ability to make these lightning strikes look effortless belied the skill required to execute them. Correctly timing a cut requires not only reading the defense, but also your teammates—a foray to the rim is worthless if the cutter and passer aren't on the same page, and a poorly timed one can ruin the offense's spacing.
[Hit THE JUMP because of
excessive entirely necessary GIF usage.]
In today's basketball world, the corner three is superior in value to any shot that doesn't come at the rim. It's also the toughest shot in the game to create for yourself; to do so requires a silky touch, a tapdancer's precision, and the guts and/or stupidity to launch a shot that would earn most players a quick trip to the bench.
Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry covered this topic in exacting detail yesterday, posting this fascinating chart that shows the assist rate for shots made from each spot on the floor—three-pointers usually require assistance, and the rate increases as the shooter gets closer to the baseline [click to embiggen]:
Goldsberry's post focused on the players who could create those high-percentage shots for their teammates, because even in the NBA, finding players who do it themselves is a difficult proposition:
Meanwhile, unassisted corners 3s are the white buffalos of perimeter shooting. They don’t come around too often. As it turns out, dribbling into the corner and firing up a 3 is very difficult, and perhaps unwise, as well. It takes a special kind of player to even attempt this task, as Rudy Gay demonstrates for us here: [GIF of Rudy Gay dribbling into the corner and badly airballing a fallaway attempt]
Which brings me to Nik Stauskas. I've written before about his pregame shootaround routine, but it's worth mentioning again. In addition to practicing the usual spot-up threes from various points around the arc, Stauskas always spent time in the corner working his crossover stepback, a move designed to clear out just enough space to launch from a spot that opponents long ago learned to keep him from at all costs.
Without ever having to look, Stauskas's feet nestled precisely between the three-point line and the sideline, the product of countless practice hours transforming process into instinct. By the end of his Michigan career, he made these audacious warmup attempts at about the same outrageous clip that he hit his normal shots. Michigan's shootarounds were considered must-watch because of the team's—and especially Glenn Robinson's—impromptu dunk exhibitions; for me, however, the Stauskas Stepback was always the highlight.
[Hit THE JUMP for more on Stauskas's incredible shot creation in GIF, still, and chart form. Oh, and some more words, too.]
Brennen Beyer won't forget that moment. Long after Al Borges is just a name from a past that may or may not haunt us as fans, the Canton native who stayed close to home will delight in telling his family and friends about the time he—a defensive end—scored a touchdown; he'll have the football to prove it, and the final score of the game will be largely irrelevant.
These moments have been frustratingly few and far between this season, especially this month; even in the shadow of defeat, however, they provide fleeting flashes of joy, even when we're doing our best to detach emotionally.
When Devin Gardner rolled out, couldn't reach the corner, then threw aside Tanner Miller like a defective Weeble-Wobble before hitting A.J. Williams for his first career reception—in the end zone, no less—my reaction wasn't to slump back onto the couch, muttering something about Al Borges's doomed waggles; it was "F*** YEAH, DEVIN." Maybe not so profound or eloquent, but damn if it didn't feel good.
Then Michigan lost, miserably, and I drove home in a funk. But they had their moments, and so did I.
[After THE JUMP, basketball moments.]
2013-14 Preview Coverage
Media Day Wrap: Beilein transcript + interviews with Horford, Morgan, Walton, GRIII
Position Previews: Bigs, Wings, Point Guards
Preview Podcast: With special guest John Gasaway
A Whole Damn Book: A whole damn book
Tonight's Game Info
What: Michigan vs. UMass-Lowell
Where: Crisler Center, Ann Arbor, Michigan
When: 7pm, Friday (Banner raising ceremony at 6:40)
Line: Michigan -25 (KenPom)
TV: Big Ten Digital Network (subcription required)/MGoBlueTV (ditto)
Radio: 950 AM (Detroit), 102.9 FM (Ann Arbor), Sirius Channel 92, MGoBlue stream
UMass-Lowell is making their Division I debut after finishing 15-13 (10-12) as a member of the Northeast-10 (Division II) last year. A full-blown game preview is rather unnecessary.
"If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties." — Sir Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning
As Michigan opens its season tonight against UMass-Lowell, I'm certain of two things about this team: they're raising a Final Four banner tonight, and they will be good.
The first is indisputable fact, not to mention a significant reason why it's easy to state the second: John Beilein's squad returns eight players (three starters, four more rotation guys) from a team that came within a half of requiring a bigger, fancier banner. Among those are two players garnering preseason All-American consideration, arguably the best shooter in America, a backup point guard who dropped 17 points in the first half of the title game, two experienced big men, and a sophomore oozing so much potential that he forced his way onto the court last year despite appearing malnourished.
On top of that, Michigan boasts one of the best coaching staffs in the country and bring in two top-flight recruits who will contribute immediately, one of whom (PG Derrick Walton) has already secured a starting role. They will be good, even without Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway.
How good depends on a number of factors, however, and for every certainty there is an equal and opposite uncertainty.
Certainty: Mitch McGary is one of the most skilled, impactful centers in college basketball.
Uncertainty: When will he be able to return from his back "condition", and will it hamper him once he returns? (Also: how much do we weigh his tournament run versus his regular-season output?)
Certainty: Glenn Robinson III is an incredible athlete who had an exceptionally efficient freshman season.
Uncertainty: Can Robinson create his own shot, and can he stay so efficient with a bigger role?
Certainty: Beilein will try to play more two-big lineups this year.
Uncertainty: Will this work, especially with all the practice time McGary has missed? With all the talent on the wings, is it even worth trying?
Certainty: Caris LeVert is getting massive practice hype for the second straight year and looks like a potential breakout star as a shooting guard and part-time point.
Uncertainty: Will his practice/exhibition exploits translate to actual production against real opponents this year?
Certainty: Nik Stauskas is a great shooter; also: Not Just A Shooter.
Uncertainty: Can his lethal efficiency as a three-point shooter and pick-and-roll ballhandler continue when he's the team's first or second scoring option?
Certainty: Michigan is starting an extremely talented freshman point guard.
Uncertainty: Michigan is starting an extremely talented freshman point guard.
The list goes on and on*, and I'm okay with this. The uncertainty surrounding the football team this year has largely stemmed from "can this non-functional unit become functional"-type questions. The uncertainty surrounding the basketball team, on the other hand, is more of the "can this good thing become great" variety.
If the pieces all fall into place, Michigan is a national title contender once again. If they don't, this is still a team capable of winning the Big Ten (so long as Michigan State doesn't go full juggernaut, at least), and barring a rash of injuries they'll be a fun team to watch. None of us have any idea what's going to happen; it's still all but guaranteed to be more rewarding than watching this year's football team. Sit back and enjoy Michigan's status as one of the nation's elite programs, one that reloads instead of rebuilds, and savor that banner. We'll worry about certainties another time.
*Will the team's added functional size and experience on the wings equal better defensive performance, for example.
Image via UMHoops
"Bright youth passes swiftly as a thought." — Theognis
Mitch McGary scored in double figures twice in his first 21 games for Michigan. Before last night, he had 18 assists... all season.
Nik Stauskas had made just two of his previous 16 three-point attempts when he took the floor against Florida.
Prior to the NCAA Tournament, Glenn Robinson III's season high in offensive rebounds was four.
Caris LeVert, expected to take a redshirt year, didn't play in Michigan's first six games. He'd scored a grand total of zero NCAA Tournament points heading into Saturday night.
Going into the last two games, Spike Albrecht had scored 54 points this season, 627 fewer than the man he backed up, Trey Burke.
Before the season began, I wrote about the lofty expectations for this team, and how much they had to rely on a talented but enigmatic group of incoming freshmen:
While the hype may be slightly overblown, anything less than the program's first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 1994 would be considered a disappointment.
How the team reaches that point is still very much in question. Hardaway, plagued by a balky jumper, ceded the role of lead dog to Burke as the season wore on in 2011-12; if he regains his stroke, he could emerge as the top scoring option. The presence of Jordan Morgan, McGary, and a healthy Jon Horford up front gives Beilein new-found depth and versatility with his lineup—Beilein spoke at media day of an offseason spent studying NBA film to see how the pros utilize two post players, a luxury he hasn't been afforded during his time in Ann Arbor. For their part, McGary and Robinson must live up to sky-high recruiting hype if this team hopes to deliver on their potential.
The extent to which the Wolverines miss Zack Novak, Stu Douglass, and Evan Smotrycz depends largely on another freshman, Nik Stauskas, and his ability to connect from the outside. Yet another freshman, Spike Albrecht, will be called upon to replace "timeout" as Burke's backup. One more first-year guard, Caris LeVert, has earned rave reviews in practice and could provide scoring punch off the bench.
When the season began, Stauskas and Robinson managed to make an immediate impact. McGary, however, was simultaneously playing his way into shape and learning how to play his game without bashing into everyone and everything (including, very nearly, the Governor). Albrecht was largely a non-factor all the way through Big Ten season, called upon to keep the ship afloat—and no more than that—when the National Player of the Year needed a quick breather. LeVert appeared at least a year away from being a major contributor, showing flashes of sky-high potential but shooting under 30% on the season.
Heading into the tournament, Michigan was regarded, well, maybe not as a one-man show, but to keep it in-state let's say they were the White Stripes and Trey Burke was Jack White—take him away and you're left with a bunch of unmelodious noise that often strays off-beat. When Burke scored six points on 2/12 shooting in the opening game against South Dakota State, it was a clear case of fortunate timing, the only remaining game in which he could perform below his standard and see the Wolverines advance. That opinion did not change when Burke posted 18 and 7 against the vaunted VCU press, and was cemented during the final minutes of the Kansas game—despite his scoreless first half, and McGary's inspired play keeping the Wolverines within striking distance.
Then came the Florida game. McGary continued his transformation into Evolutionary Tim Duncan, posting 11 points, nine rebounds, and five(!) steals in just 21 minutes. Robinson, who'd struggled all season defensively, held Patric Young to eight points and a lone offensive board. Albrecht scored seven off the bench, broke a press with an absurd baseball pass to Jon Horford, and his three steals included this playground special. And Stauskas, of course, bombed the Gators out of the building with a perfect six-for-six performance from beyond the arc. Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. combined to shoot 8-for-29. The Wolverines won by 20.
Last night, it was McGary—not Burke—facilitating Michigan's most effective offensive possessions, dishing out six assists (including a no-looker to GRIII) and devastating Syracuse's 2-3 zone from the high post. For the second time in the tournament, Robinson recorded five offensive rebounds. Albrecht only played four minutes, but hit two huge threes—including a Burke-esque 30-footer—and helped handle the rock late when Syracuse turned up the pressure. With a migraine-limited Stauskas unable to score, LeVert stepped onto the big stage and immediately connected on a pair of game-changing triples—he played his usual solid defense and recorded four rebounds for good measure. Burke scored seven points, just one more than Albrecht*. Hardaway was 4/16 from the field. Despite a late Syracuse push, Michigan won with relative comfort.
Above all else, this has been the revelation of the NCAA Tournament. It's impossible to understate the importance of Trey Burke, and how his masterpiece of a season got Michigan here. The contributions of Hardaway, Jon Horford, and the Jordan Morgan Redemption Tour have been invaluable all year, including the postseason. The emergence of the Fresh Five—all of them—however, is the biggest reason the Wolverines are playing for a national title on Monday.
John Beilein deserves much of the credit here, of course—not just for an exquisite eye for recruiting talent (usually before anyone else), but for masterfully managing their roles, minutes, and psyche. Before the tournament, there was no doubt that Michigan could pull themselves together and contend for a title if they played up to their potential. At this point, though, they're not just in position for this year—they're set up to reach the same heights on a regular basis. This is from the same article I wrote before the season:
Despite the inexperience and uncertainty, this team represents Beilein's surest bet to take this program to the next level, and could very well be his best shot for a long time. That may sound rash, but the Wolverines have been close to the leap before, only to fall back: the Amaker tenure crumbled despite early promise, the 2009-10 squad faltered despite making the tournament with the same nucleus the year before, and even last year's team tripped up against 13-seed Ohio in the Big Dance. Trey Burke probably isn't walking through that door next year. There's no guarantee Tim Hardaway Jr. will, either. For that matter, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III have one-and-done potential if all goes well (too well, perhaps).
On Monday, we'll watch this team play together for the last time. We know this. They know this. Despite a rotation lacking a single senior, a large part of the team's core won't be back next year, and for damn good reason.
That no longer concerns me. John Beilein will find a way, replacing his bright youth with brighter youth, just as he has during his entire Michigan tenure.
*Though, for anyone who thinks Burke had an awful game, please refer to Michael Carter-Williams' final stat line.