After Michigan’s thrilling overtime victory over Florida State in the semifinal of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic, a few Wolverines gathered in the media room for post-game interviews. Derrick Walton, Nik Stauskas and Mitch McGary fielded various questions — Stauskas about his late lay-in to tie the game, Walton about his continuing trial-by-fire as a freshman point guard.
McGary was asked by Rod Beard of the Detroit News about two plays he made in particular: midway through the second half, McGary pulled down a rebound on the fast break, sprinted down the court, got tangled up in two or three defenders around the free throw line and somehow dribbled a behind-the-back pass to Stauskas, who nailed a 3-pointer; later, McGary grabbed another defensive rebound and this time eschewed passing and took it coast-to-coast for a contested layup.
Both plays were wild, exciting and somewhat out-of-control. And both were consummately McGary-an. McGary smiled when he was asked about those two plays. With a chuckle, he said, “Coach, he’s starting to build more trust in me.”
Michigan fans are familiar John Beilein’s style: buttoned-up, efficient, no-nonsense. The coach drills his players early on in skills as fundamental as passing with two hands early in the season and all of his charges are made abundantly aware of his disdain for turnovers. It’s this perfectionist style that makes Beilein such a great coach, and it’s how he has built Michigan into a powerhouse.
However, it’s also a style that undoubtedly puts him at philosophical odds with McGary, his star player. McGary plays in a state of barely-controlled chaos, relying on incredible instinct, shocking athleticism and advanced, guard-like ball skills. It’s Beilein’s job to harness McGary’s frenetic energy into something productive. One can imagine, after watching Walton, Stauskas and McGary exchange looks and smiles when talking about McGary’s two wildest plays of Friday night, that McGary has been warned to curtail his frenzied ways more than once behind the closed doors of Michigan’s practices.
This isn’t to say McGary is defiant in the face of Beilein’s teaching — it’s obvious from the big man’s drastic improvement over the course of his career as a Wolverine that he is a veritable sponge. But it seems as though for their two opposing styles to coexist, they must meet in the middle. McGary must learn to exhibit control over his game (he miraculously had zero turnovers against Florida State), and Beilein must learn to live with the occasional full-court sprint, behind-the-back pass in traffic.
Beilein and McGary are on a road leading to mutual trust, a road similarly followed by the coach and former Michigan point guard Trey Burke. Last season, Beilein handed over much of the offensive control to Burke because of that trust. Burke had to prove to Beilein he could be trusted, and McGary is on the road to proving the same thing. It appears he’s getting there, and this Michigan team is better for it.
McGary’s stat line against Florida State was last year’s NCAA tournament-level awesome: 14 points, 12 rebounds (7 offensive), three assists, one steal and two blocks. With a little freedom, almost enough touches and plenty of minutes, McGary showed what he’s capable of against an imposing, physical team. Michigan’s All-American big man is a special player, and unlike any other in college basketball. When he and Beilein strike the sweet spot of preventing careless mistakes and channeling his relentless energy, watch out.
Beilein was convinced that this was only the start of what McGary can bring to the tabel.
“He’s so far,” Beilein said. “His timing and all these things are so far off right now but he gives us some energy, some rebounding ability that few people in the country have.”
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said it best after watching McGary have his way with the coach’s seven-footers for just one night in Puerto Rico:
“Obviously, he’s an outstanding player. He didn’t do anything to surprise us, he’s just talented. He played like great players play. He played great basketball,” Hamilton said. “But Mitch is an especially unique, extremely skilled big man who has a great future in the game of basketball. His biggest strength, I believe, is his basketball IQ. He made great decisions with the ball, he’s kind of like a point center. He not only performs at a high level himself, he never forces antyhing and he makes his teammates better. You have to give him a lot of credit. He’s a tough, skilled, smart basketball player.”
If McGary continues to play as well as he did on Friday night in the areas Hamilton highlighted — displaying high basketball IQ, not forcing the issue, making good decisions with the ball — not only will he earn Beilein’s trust, but Michigan will be on its way to another special season.