AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Michigan freshman Mitch McGary squinted, the glare from a dozen television cameras too much to handle at first, before he calmly explained how simple his breakout performance had been.
Though it was just his fourth career start after coming off the bench much of this season, McGary wasn’t ready to gloat about registering a career-high 21 points and 14 rebounds to propel Michigan past Virginia Commonwealth and into the NCAA tournament’s round of 16 for the first time since 1994.
“I was just trying to rebound and grab loose balls, and I ended up having a good game,” McGary explained. “I just played with a lot of energy and my teammates fed me.”
Moments earlier, though, as McGary walked down the hallway toward the spotlight many expected to be trained on him since November 2011, when he became the highest-rated recruit to pick Michigan since the Fab Five days, McGary conceded none of it would have been possible if he hadn’t changed how he fed himself.
The Chesterton, Ind., native played in high school at about 250 pounds, but when preseason practices began in Ann Arbor, Mich., last fall, his weight had ballooned to 273 pounds, the result of a foot injury, a new weightlifting program and an affinity for ice cream sundaes.
“He was probably enjoying that cafeteria food a little too much,” Michigan assistant Bacari Alexander said with a laugh Saturday.
“Early in the season, Coach [John Beilein] could only put me in for so long because I would get tired,” McGary added.
The 6-foot-10 forward is back down to 255 pounds for the NCAA tournament, not that one could tell against VCU. His jarring first-half screen on Rams guard Briante Weber sent a pro-Michigan crowd at the Palace of Auburn Hills into a frenzy and helped ignite the Wolverines’ rout.
“The man happened to run into my chest. I didn’t mean intentionally for him to fall down,” McGary said matter-of-factly.
But it was the extra possessions McGary created diving on the floor and collecting offensive rebounds that led point guard Trey Burke to call him “our X-factor,” as Michigan prepares to face No. 1 seed Kansas on Friday in the round of 16.
Beilein decided to insert McGary in the starting lineup ahead of last week’s first-round matchup against South Dakota State because senior Jordan Morgan had struggled to regain his timing after suffering an ankle injury in January. But at least symbolically, McGary’s ascent shined a light on the program’s transformation since Beilein was hired in 2007.
After falling short on Selection Sunday for more than a decade, a stretch that included NCAA sanctions that forced Michigan to remove its Final Four banners from 1992 and 1993, the Wolverines upgraded their facilities with more than $70 million in renovations. Alexander said it contributed to a “culture change” and jolted recruiting efforts in recent years.
Michigan’s rotation also includes three players with family NBA pedigrees – guard Tim Hardaway Jr., forward Glenn Robinson III and junior Jon Horford – as well as Burke, a national player of the year candidate whom the Wolverines lured from Columbus, Ohio, home of bitter rival Ohio State. Beilein, who previously led Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia to the NCAA tournament, has called this year’s group the most talented team he has ever coached.
But McGary is different, a lefty who at one point was described as the best prospect in his recruiting class during high school. Alexander, who coaches Michigan’s big men, compared his pupil to NBA players Tyler Hansbrough and Kevin Love, and Beilein noted, “it’s not just that he’s big and talented. He can do some things out on the perimeter that guards can do.”
Despite those skills, McGary said he thrived coming off the bench when he played at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire last year and talked of the “blue collar, football mentality” he brings to the court from his days playing tight end. Perhaps more importantly, he also senses how important those contributions could be in the coming days.
“It’s one of my specialties, being a nitty-gritty guy,” McGary said. “Everybody feeds off of it and, when that happens, there’s no telling what we can do as a team.”
Photos: Scenes from the tournament