McGary is a huge impetus as Michigan heads to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 19 years. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
Ann Arbor — He always knew he was different, large in size and personality, drawing attention in ways other kids couldn't. It was easy and fun for Mitch McGary, right up until real life caught up with him.
His grades were poor. His attention span was nonexistent. Everyone liked him and basketball coaches really liked him, so McGary happily went along for the ride, in every way. As a 12-year-old, he started riding a unicycle because it was challenging and different. He got so good at it, he'd help his buddy on his newspaper route, completing the 1.4-mile trek without falling off.
McGary laughs as he tells the story now, not because unicycling is peculiar, but because he's more aware why he did it. For the longest time, he struggled to focus on one thing — a sport, an activity, a classroom. He's the kid who grew up slowly and now is growing up quickly, not just along for the ride anymore.
McGary is a huge impetus as Michigan heads to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 19 years, facing top-seeded Kansas on Friday night at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The 6-10 freshman entered the starting lineup at the start of the NCAA Tournament and has been a force, grabbing rebounds, diving on the floor, leaping with a yell. He hit 16 of 20 shots last weekend, and all of a sudden, everyone wanted to know who he was, all over again.
That's fine with McGary, because he's prouder now of who he is. He has lost nearly 15 pounds since the season began, down to 256, which has boosted his energy. He'll need all of it against the Jayhawks and their 7-foot shot-blocker, Jeff Withey.
'Something flipped a switch'
Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. lead the Wolverines, no doubt, but McGary isn't shrinking from anything. Not anymore.
"I was one of those star athletes in high school, you know the stories — the hometown studs who just played sports and got by," McGary said. "I was friendly, never a troublemaker, but I was always the kid who got by just being nice. In school, I was lazy. And then something flipped a switch."
Pushed by his parents and his AAU coach, Wayne Brumm, McGary realized his grades wouldn't get him into any Division I program, and the high school ride was nearing an end. During his sophomore year, he'd been diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and tried to take medication for it, but disliked the way it made him feel.
Brumm suggested he attend a prep school, Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., a long way from his home in Chesterton, Ind. It had smaller class sizes and more personal instruction, as well as a renowned basketball program.
"I embrace ADHD, I don't shy away from it," McGary said. "It made me work a lot harder and focus a lot more. I had to make a decision what I wanted to do with my life. It was like it is now in the NCAA Tournament — the mindset of one and done. In high school, it was gonna be one and done for me, my grades were so bad."
McGary played two seasons at Brewster and became one of the top power forwards in the country. Partly because of his friendship with Michigan's Zack Novak, a former teammate in Chesterton, McGary always had the Wolverines high on his list.
To understand what makes him unique, listen to why he chose Michigan: "I looked at the Dukes, the North Carolinas, the Kentuckys, the Floridas, but if I went there, I'd be just another name. We'd probably win a lot of games, but I wanted to go on my own path, make a name for myself. Michigan was on the rise again and the coaches were honest with me. Other coaches would give me that used-car salesman thing, say what you wanted to hear."
McGary was done taking the easy road. He was the guy John Beilein's program needed, not because he's an impact scorer — he's not — but because he's an impact player, the highest-rated recruit Beilein has landed.
His commitment helped validate the rebuilding Wolverines. More than that, it validated what McGary was doing. Because of his prep-school stint, he's a 20-year-old freshman, and the twist is, he's now mature beyond his years.
Oh, he's still rambunctious and prone to mistakes, but his energy is contagious. He's charismatic and polite, an obvious leader. For now, Beilein is trying to unleash him and corral him at the same time.
"I've learned to wait for a minute, almost count to five, before I try to address him after he does something either good or bad," Beilein said. "I just let him gather himself a little bit. It's all good stuff, but you do have to be patient when you speak with him because he does get very enthusiastic about certain things."
Foul trouble can be an issue, and that's the concern against a senior like Withey. But McGary has quick feet and a scent for the basketball, and is willing to do anything to go get it.
Just ask his teammates, who smile when talking about the buzz-haired guy with the bounding Saint Bernard mentality.
"Mitch is a crazy kid, but we all love him," freshman Nik Stauskas said. "He plays wild out there and gets the crowd involved. He brings that same attitude every day in practice."
Burke calls McGary a future captain of the Wolverines, and it's easy to see why. The size and talent earned him the nickname "Monster" and attracted the attention of Brady Hoke and his football staff.
McGary played tight end until the eighth grade, when he said his dad made him quit because he had gotten too tall. Does he miss football? Yep.
Does he ever expect to play it again? That thought has faded as his basketball talents have grown.
"I mean, I'd still like to play," said McGary, who rooms with fellow first-year player Glenn Robinson III. "Coach Hoke has talked to me about maybe playing some spring ball after the tournament. He says it jokingly, but I think he's serious down deep. But I probably want to focus on basketball. I like doing the dirty work, having that football mentality. I feel I could do that (21 points, 14 rebounds against VCU) any night if I put my mind to it. Well, maybe not as many points, but I'm sure as heck gonna get as many rebounds as possible."
That will be severely tested by Withey, but if it becomes Withey-versus-Wily, McGary can hold his ground. He likes his role, and it helps that he's been humbled before.
He said he had no problem coming off the bench earlier in the season, and understood one of the reasons. He was a bit heavy and it wore him out. He'd play in feisty bursts and then sit for a while.
""Now it's smaller portions, trying to get my metabolism back to what it was when I was younger," he said. "I used to be able to eat McDonalds, Taco Bell, anything. Now I'm getting older and I gotta work it off."
Uh, getting older? McGary turns 21 in June, but he hasn't lost his outgoing spirit. He didn't bring any of his three unicycles to Ann Arbor, but when he goes home, he still rides them.
There's a photo on the Internet of McGary dressed up before a high school dance, wearing a derby hat and sitting on his one-wheeled bike. He laughs about it, but there's a method to his ventures.
"Nobody else rode unicycles, so it was unique, something really cool," he said. "I thought I could be one of the only people to excel at it, and I also thought it'd help in basketball. It's a great workout, and balancing is very hard."
Finding the right balance is difficult, on and off the bike. McGary was willing to try something different and be someone different, the best way to see if you can do what you didn't think you could.
Sweet 16: Michigan vs. Kansas
Tipoff: 7:37 p.m. Friday, Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Records: Michigan 28-7, Kansas 31-5
Notable: Michigan is 5-2 against Kansas all-time, losing the last two, in 2009 and in overtime in 2011.