Ann Arbor — One of the biggest stories during Michigan’s run to the Final Four last season was big man Mitch McGary.
McGary didn’t become a regular in the lineup until the start of the NCAA Tournament, but made his mark with his versatile play in the post and ability to create shots for teammates with his ball-handling skills.
Early during practice this season, McGary continues to be the story, but because of lingering back issues, which have limited him. He’s continued to do some stationary drills but has been held out of some of the contact drills.
“He’s making great progress but we’re super cautious,” coach John Beilein said Thursday at Michigan’s media day. “He’s been doing these underwater treadmill workouts that are really productive. If he keeps making this progress day after day, one of these days, he’s going to have to get out there and see what he can do.”
McGary indicated there’s no specific timetable for his return, and that he’s trying to keep things positive.
“I’m day to day right now,” he said. “I’m feeling really good about my body — just trying to get better every day by doing things I can do. There’s no real injury, just a lower-back condition. It’s an issue we have handled but we’re just being cautious now.”
With plenty of depth in the frontcourt in senior Jordan Morgan, junior Jon Horford and sophomore Max Bielfeldt, Michigan will look to move on in the exhibition opener Tuesday against Concordia (Mich.).
“We’re definitely talented with Jon and Jordan,” McGary said. “Jon’s been getting a lot better and getting in the gym every day and it’s been paying off. He’s been practicing really well in scrimmages and I think he’s our go-to guy right now.”
It’s a similar situation to last season, where McGary didn’t play heavy minutes at the beginning of the season as he overcame a foot injury and worked to get himself in playing shape.
Throughout the season, Morgan, Horford and Bielfeldt battled injuries and missed time. This year, though, all three are back in playing shape and look to take on more of the workload as McGary works his way back.
It’s also a transition, as the frontcourt has the most experience of any position group on the team.
“All of a sudden, we have an experienced frontcourt and we can multi-position those guys,” Beilein said. “If we can continue to do what we’ve been doing, (we can) really multi-position, like something no one has ever seen.”
But, McGary’s absence is holding back some of the unveiling of the new-look lineups and giving others an opportunity to play heavier minutes before the regular season begins Nov. 8 against Massachusetts-Lowell at Crisler Center.
“With Mitch not being in there right now, we’re not as versatile as we’d like to be because we want to have people playing a lot of different positions,” Beilein said. “When Mitch is healthy, we are fairly versatile where we can play multi-position players and let them roll.”
Since the spring, McGary has been working on diversifying his game to play forward as well as center. That would give the Wolverines the versatility to play with two big men or use McGary to guard quicker big men on the perimeter, if needed.
“He expanded his shooting range out to (3-point range),” said assistant Bacari Alexander, who works with the post players. “He was making plays not only for himself but for his teammates by decking the basketball and drawing defenders.
“All the areas for growth that we had envisioned for him, we’re seeing now and that’s something Mitch has been intentional about in terms of changing his game for the offseason.”
The greatest improvement, though, might be in McGary‘s vocal leadership and taking over for last year’s leaders, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke.
“(The injury) has given Mitch a great opportunity to help coach (freshman) Mark Donnal and he’s been doing so in practice, so that’s been good for us,” Beilein said.
As for the spotlight of being a preseason All-American and the focus of many teams’ defense and game plans, McGary will take that in stride as well.
“Anybody that knows the Mitch McGary story knows he was the No. 2 player in the country,” Alexander said. “The expectations that come with that and angst people perceive come with that, Mitch embraces the bright lights, and he set out to come to Michigan to help us get to a national championship level.”