April 7, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Mitch McGary is the found link in Michigan's evolution

Atlanta — They're growing quickly now, sweating through the toughest moments as if they've been here before. You see the evolving talents everywhere, from the freshmen off the bench to the big guy in the middle.

The Wolverines will play in the national championship game, and there are many, many reasons they got there. They held on to beat Syracuse, 61-56, in the Final Four Saturday night, and naturally, their primary playmaker was 6-foot-10 center Mitch McGary. Hey, why not?

When Michigan plays Louisville on Monday night, it could be back to Trey Burke, or Glenn Robinson III, or Tim Hardaway Jr. It could be about making a few more clutch free throws — yikes, have Michigan fans opened their eyes yet? But there's no doubt this team has changed because the kid in the middle has become the man in the middle.

No longer is McGary a revelation — he's been dominant the entire NCAA Tournament. But what he and his teammates did to Syracuse was downright nasty. Oh, they struggled against the famed zone defense, but they solved just enough of it by planting McGary at the top and letting him unleash his remarkable talents.

This time, he dropped no-look passes, grabbed a bunch of rebounds and then added to the drama by missing a few free throws. As the games are tightening, the Wolverines are toughening, and when your center leads the way with six assists and adds a double-double — 10 points, 12 rebounds — well, this is looking like a truck that will be hard to stop.

Louisville will present an entirely different challenge, with its tenacious, pressing defense, and it'll probably be back in Burke's hands. But after John Beilein sprung McGary on Syracuse, you figure he'll come up with something. You just wonder how many elements McGary has left to unveil.

"You know, I consider myself a good passer, sometimes too crazy for Coach Beilein," McGary said. "But during the summer, I was doing no-look passes. Just the time and the moment, just trying to make the right play."

Great time for growth

The time and the moment, that's what riveting runs like this are always about. Beilein picked the judicious time to insert McGary in the starting lineup, and the freshman has attacked the moment. In five Tournament starts, McGary has three double-doubles, and was one rebound shy in the two other games.

But about those passing skills? Before Saturday night, he didn't have more than two assists in a game all season. This is the expansion we're seeing more and more, as Caris LeVert came off the bench to score eight crucial points, and as Jordan Morgan made huge defensive plays down the stretch.

It was Morgan who lost the starting job to McGary, but there he was at the end, drawing a charging foul on Brandon Triche with Michigan clinging to a 58-56 lead. Fittingly, it was Morgan who sprinted downcourt for the exclamatory dunk that sent the Michigan crowd into hysterics as the buzzer sounded.

Yes, the Wolverines missed too many free throws — four in the last minute. But they also played the final two minutes without any timeouts, and you know that jangled a few nerves for Michigan people. Perhaps you've heard the tale of the last time the Wolverines played in the Final Four, when Chris Webber called a timeout they didn't have.

This time, against Syracuse's pressure, Michigan hung on.

"It took forever (at the end)," Morgan said. "I was kind of looking at the clock and, man, how much time is left? We showed a lot of poise in the last minute and knocked down just enough free throws."

Roles become rolling

McGary sheepishly admitted the game wouldn't have been so taut if he hit his free throws — he was 2-for-6. But his passing was the game-changer, and when he slid a no-looker to Robinson III for a dunk early in the second half, his ascension to national breakout star was just about complete.

"The fire's always been burning (inside McGary)," Beilein said. "He's made these incremental steps all year long. Sometimes you look at him and there's some really brilliant things. Then other times you can see he has a lot to learn. He embraces all that, and the best is yet to come."

It mirrors this Michigan team, the youngest in the entire tournament field, now playing for the title. On a night when Burke and Hardaway Jr. combined to shoot 5-for-24, the Wolverines pulled it out because everyone pitched in.

Syracuse did a solid job hawking the guards but McGary turned out to be the zone-buster. The bigger he plays, the further Michigan goes, the humbler he tries to stay.

"Just finding a role on the team," McGary said. "Opponents are keying on Trey and Tim a lot. I'm just getting a lot of open looks and making good decisions."

He has been the missing piece, and now all the pieces are in place. The Wolverines don't always make it look easy, but they keep finding their way, shortly after finding their big man.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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Michigan forward Mitch McGary celebrates a victory he had a lot to do with Saturday in Atlanta. / John T. Greilick/Detroit News
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