Despite short career, Mitch McGary leaves lasting legacy


Michigan-71-South-Dakota-State-56-4[1]For three weeks, Mitch McGary was at the center of the college basketball universe. That was a little over a year ago. It feels like an eternity.

When Michigan fans look back on McGary’s brief and wondrous career as a Wolverine, those three weeks will likely be what they think of first. There was his dominant performance against VCU, the first game in which he showed the true breadth of his prodigious talent. I recall saying his stat line to myself out loud to convince myself it actually happened: 21 points, 14 rebounds, one missed shot. He was somehow even better against Kansas and senior center Jeff Withey. His dismantling of the vaunted Syracuse 2-3 zone forced Jim Boeheim to make serious adjustments at halftime, but it was too late — Michigan was going to the national title game.

Trey Burke was transcendent that year, but no Michigan player had an NCAA tournament performance quite like McGary’s. The confluence of fortuitous events that facilitated his late-March revelation — finally reaching game shape, finally becoming fully healthy, finally just getting it — was what got Michigan to the final game.

Unfortunately, it is there that McGary’s basketball legacy at Michigan effectively ends. McGary announced on Friday that he will be forgoing his final two years of eligibility and declaring for the NBA draft. This after a year in which he played in only eight games before undergoing season-ending back surgery.

His departure carries with it an element of coercion, courtesy of the NCAA. According to an article published by Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports, McGary smoked pot in March, before the NCAA tournament. He was randomly drug tested by the NCAA two weeks later after Michigan’s Sweet Sixteen victory over Tennessee and failed the test. The penalty for failing an NCAA-administered drug test, for a first-time offender, is a one-year suspension. This penalty stands in stark contrast to a failed drug test administered by the school, which for a first-time offender would have been a three-game suspension.

Schools are allowed to work out their own drug-enforcement policies, as long as they adhere to them; Michigan’s is viewed as one on the stricter side of the spectrum. Because the drug test took place during an NCAA event and not during the course of the regular season, it was administered by the NCAA, not the school. So McGary is penalized by the NCAA, not Michigan.

The severity of the penalty, especially for a first-time offense, is alarming. For an organization that governs the athletic activity of mostly 18-to-22-year-olds, it feels downright draconian. “The NCAA really doesn’t show any mercy,” McGary said to Wetzel. It doesn’t, and it should.

That being said, it doesn’t matter, substantively, what McGary or you or I think of the rule. It’s on the books; it must be followed.

The whole situation is just sad. McGary made a poor decision, the kind every person his age has undoubtedly made. He is now paying, perhaps extravagantly, for his actions. And there is no doubt about it – this turn of events influenced his decision to forgo his final two years and declare for the NBA draft.

How much influence the failed drug test had is up for debate. McGary did not hold a press conference, so we couldn’t ask him. He never told Weztel he would have returned to Michigan if he hadn’t failed the drug test – the most he said on the subject was that he would have “possibly thought about coming back.” It doesn’t seem wise to assume he would be back in school next year had it not been for the failed test, but that isn’t really the point. What’s unfortunate is that such an important decision was influenced at all by such a careless, and common, misstep.

Of course, there is a good chance McGary can turn things around in individual workouts in preparation for the draft. If he is truly healthy, and Michigan coach John Beilein has said that he is, McGary will get a chance to display his dazzling skill set in front of NBA scouts. Players with McGary’s combination of size, coordination and basketball smarts don’t come around that often. And in the bizarro world of NBA scouting, the less the league knows about you, the better. All the NBA has to go on are these individual workouts and those threes weeks in March one year ago. Both are now seen through the lens of back surgery, but they will still impress.

Outside of his sublime NCAA tournament run, this failed drug test and subsequent departure caps a Michigan career that has been tragic, in a sense. McGary had the option to leave for the NBA and be a lottery pick after his freshman year – which, in retrospect, was the obvious choice – but he decided to return.  Then came the injury, which everyone knew would impact his draft stock. And now this. It just makes you feel for the guy.

It sounds strange to characterize the career of a man who seemed to be constantly grinning as tragic, and maybe it’s unfair to remember his career that way. Perhaps it’s best to remember his career for the way he played: relentless and somehow carefree, almost self-forgetting. Because those who watched it will not remember McGary’s career for this unfortunate day. It will be remembered in images of him galloping up and down the court, the bull in the china shop paving the way to the national title game.

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  • Michael

    Still sad…Sigh

  • Fred Z in Ann Arbor

    Doubt it will seem tragic if he has a 15-year NBA career, which is a distinct possibility if he stays healthy. Always a roster spot for a 6’10 guy who loves to rebound.

  • MadinDC

    What a joke. The guy probably was going through immense pain because of his back. Would the NCAA rather him take strong pain pills, which are more addictive and worst for you? I know its illegal but still, what a sanctimonious bunch of clowns the NCAA execs are. And I have news for you he returns without this because he and Caris could have been an unstoppable duo together and lead us back to the promise land, catapulting him to definite 1st round status. As it is now, we maybe an 8 seed and McGary a 2nd round draft pick without a guarantee of any money.
    I hope I am wrong but seems a likely scenario. NCAA you should be ashamed of yourself today….

  • David Remmler

    McGary had a great although brief career at Michigan. His legacy is untarnished by the NCAA’s assclownery.

    It may turn out for the best anyway. He seems to have a great attitude to go along with his god-given talent. So I anticipate a very successful career ahead if him if he stays healthy. He will be a steal if he slips to the second round.

    As for the NCAA, their hypocrisy and corrupt ways seem to have no bounds. When the fools who passed judgement on McGary drink a glass of beer or wine, they will be consuming an even more dangerous substance than the marijuana McGary smoked. And I would bet that most or all if them did the same as McGary. They should be ashamed.

    • Mith

      I think his legacy is absolutely tarnished. I don’t know how it can not be.

      • David Remmler

        How so? Is your college degree tarnished because you had a beer?

        Sometimes, the rule IS the problem, not the rule breaker.

        • Mith

          The rule is harsh no doubt, I won’t argue that. But everyone is always going to associate McGary leaving school with getting caught smoking pot and failing a drug test. That is part of his legacy and it tarnishes it.
          You sound like you don’t have a problem with pot, but obviously a lot of people do(myself included) or this wouldn’t be an issue in the first place.
          BTW, your analogy about my college degree doesn’t make sense. I didn’t get “in trouble” at school for drinking beer. If I had gotten a DUI during college, then yes, that would have tarnished my college legacy somewhat.

          • Roanman

            So the difference here in your mind is that you didn’t get caught.

          • David Remmler

            I guess there will be different perspectives on the issue but I seriously doubt that the pot issue will change how people view McGary’s time at Michigan. It’s a side issue which didn’t impact his play here but helped make his decision to leave this year a lot clearer. And it’s only an issue due to idiotic archaic NCAA rules.

            Whether you or I have a “problem with pot” is irrelevant. I don’t smoke pot (and I think it’s a bad habit) but I don’t really care whether other people do. Why not? Because smoking pot doesn’t harm others and arguably does little or no harm to the smoker (relative to other recreational drugs, legal or otherwise). In fact, it is safer than smoking tobacco or drinking alcohol. And pot smokers don’t cause the mayhem that drunks do. There are also valid medical indications for marijuana although that may or may not be relevant here. I’m speaking as a medical expert with 20 years of experience in emergency medicine as well as some experience in medical research on recreational drugs. The legal status of marijuana is based on politics and not medicine.

            That being said, your DUI analogy is off base. McGary wasn’t driving impaired. He was doing something that most people in our society have done, including the past several Presidents. He was smoking pot at a party and putting nobody else at risk. It should be his right to do so and should be nobody else’s business, not mine, not yours, not the government’s and not the NCAA’s.

  • Quick Darshan

    It’s too bad we couldn’t see a full season of Tournament Mitch. Big men are reluctant to come to UM because they see Beilein’s offense as guard and wing oriented. I don’t think that’s true. Would have been nice to see what Beilein’s offense would have looked like with a healthy Mitch.

  • gobluemd16

    It really is too bad. He was one of my favorite Wolverines ever, and it seems like we only got to see him playing at his peak for 8ish games. Joe, this is a really great piece and if it is your last, it was a phenomenal one. You’ve been great here, I love reading your stuff.

  • arete

    Sad to see Mitch leave like this. Sometimes bad things happen to good people.

  • Dustin Stone

    “Bull in a china shop” Couldn’t have put any better! Im gonna miss his infectious smile and attitude…and if we can remember anything that Mitch has taught us…”Win the game” Best of luck big fella!

  • Wayman Britt

    Did Mitch say he would have return to UM if not for the NCAA suspension?

    • Roanman

      No, but it was implied.

  • Lichas Daniels

    I like Mitch! Mitch’s energy and smile and obvious love for MICHIGAN was impressive. But the truth is Mitch had about 6 really good games in a 2 year college career! The NCAA rules,including the weed smoking part, :) are stupid and completely hypocritical. We’ve all known this about the NCAA for years. But to speak about Mitch’s “Michigan Legacy” is a joke!! He didn’t play enough games to have a Legacy. Stauskas will have a legacy, Not Mitch! Good luck to him in the NBA and wish him only the best!