Keeping Score

NCAA Title Game: Can Louisville Stop Michigan’s Monster?

Mitch McGary shed the baby fat; now the Michigan freshman center might well lead the Wolverines to a national championship.

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Streeter Lecka / Getty Images

Michigan's Mitch McGary dunks against Syracuse during the 2013 NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at the Georgia Dome on April 6, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia.

More than four months and 20 pounds ago, Mitch McGary, the 6’10” Michigan freshman center now known as The Monster among coaches and teammates, was late for a bus in New York City. The Wolverines were playing in the preseason NIT tournament, and headed to a shootaround, sans Monster. Where’s Mitch, everyone wondered?

Suddenly, the team saw two firemen headed into the Marriott Marquis. Turns out that McGary, and about 15 other hotel guests, were stuck in an elevator. After the firemen freed McGary from the trap, the team had even more reason to razzle the 275-pound freshman. “We joked about it for while,” says senior Michigan reserve guard Josh Bartelstein. “His weight caused it to stop.”

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At the time, McGary, one of the top-rated high school prospects in the county last year, wasn’t making much of an impression. But thanks to a disciplined diet that helped him shed the excess weight, McGary is now indeed a monster. McGary is averaging 16 points and 11.6 rebounds in this NCAA tournament. During Saturday night’s victory against Syracuse, he went for 10 points, 12 rebounds, and six assists; one of them was a no-look pass that led to a Glen Robinson III dunk. “It was one of those plays where Coach B [John Beilein of Michigan] was like ‘no, no, no … yeah,'” says McGary.

Such skills have earned McGary comparisons to versatile NBA big men like Kevin Love and David Lee, a pair of All-Stars, though Lamar Odom was his favorite player growing up. “Though I’m not that much of a Kardashian fan,” says McGary.

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Michigan, which faces Louisville in Monday’s national title game, is loaded; point guard Trey Burke, the college player of the year, and two sons of NBA stars – Tim Hardaway Jr. and Robinson III, suit up for the Wolverines. But more than any other player, a former pudgy-faced freshman is responsible for Michigan vying for its first national hoops title since 1989. “He is playing better basketball,” says Gorgui Dieng, the Louisville center who will be matching up with McGary, “than anybody in this tournament right now.”

McGary has sworn off the greasy burgers and junk food. Not that he never relapses. “I have a few cheat days here and there,” he says. “Don’t tell our strength coach… I’ll have a pizza here and there. Not a whole pizza. Maybe a pizza, maybe a burger.” McGary logs every meal he eats with the Michigan staff, and all this tracking can become tedious. “Sometimes, I just tell [the strength coach] I didn’t eat anything that day.”

Teammates are now giving McGary a ton of credit. “It’s hard for him,” says Bartelstein. “We’re drinking milkshakes, eating steak and pasta. It’s hard to kind of fall in line and eat right. He’s just worked so hard, on and off the court with his diet. That’s why we’re so happy for him, just because he knew he could make us a really good team. But he knew he had to change a lot about what he did, and he did it.”

McGary has also had to control attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – he was first diagnosed with the disorder during his sophomore year in high school. “It was kind of scary,” McGary says. “You didn’t realize it. I was just a happy-go-lucky kid in class, but I’d be spacing off, and really wouldn’t realize it until my grades started to show that I wasn’t really performing well in the classroom.” McGary says he doesn’t take medication for ADHD, and has learned to cope on his own. “If I see myself spacing off in class or in practice, or anything, I just try to bring myself back in and stay focused,” says McGary. “And keep my attention on a string.”

Tonight, McGary and his teammates must take care of the ball. Louisville is sure to press; the Wolverines are not usually a high turnover team. And though McGary didn’t fall asleep until 3:30 am after Michigan beat Syracuse, he promises energy and emotion. “I might have a little more in me,” says McGary. “I didn’t play as many minutes as these guys [this year], so maybe I have a little extra push in my step, just going off the adrenaline. It’s going to be a great game.” A dazzling assist or two from the Monster will make it even better.

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