Mitch McGary: Breakout star of the tournament … and a unicyclist?

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ATLANTA — By now, we’ve all seen the picture.

The high school version of Mitch McGary, wearing a shirt and tie, some slacks and a top hat cocked to the side while riding a unicycle.

The question we all had was ‘how’? How does a man standing all of 6-foot-10, 255 lb, manage to figure out how to ride a unicycle.

The answer: a paper route as an 11 year old.

“My friend had a paper route and he’d always go out of town so I would do his paper route on the unicycle,” McGary said. “The neighborhood route was 1.4 miles. It was pretty cool, a good workout.”

“My brother bought me one for my birthday and I was out practicing for about a week and a half straight. Finally got the trick and the hang of it and ever since I’ve been riding one.”

While McGary now claims to be a master — one of the three unicycles that he owns has a tire “four or five inches wide” because he broke a rim riding off of too many curbs — getting to the level where he can call what he does on a unicycle “off-roading” was not an easy process. Think about how long it took you to learn how to ride a bike, and now think about riding a bike with one wheel and no handlebars.

Needless to say, McGary ended up hitting the ground quite often.

“I fell on my face plenty of times,” he said. “Busted up my knees, elbows, hands.”

“But it was all worth it.”

 

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Perhaps the most interesting element of McGary as a player is that the biggest knock on him as a player may also be his biggest strength.

When he was in high school, McGary was, at one point, considered to be a top three recruit in the Class of 2012. Much of that was the result of McGary being stronger and simply playing harder than any other big men at the high school level. There’s a reason that he was often compared to former North Carolina forward Tyler Hansbrough, and it wasn’t simply the fact that they share the same demographics. He’d dive on the floor for loose balls, he’d be unafraid to throw his weight around in the paint and he wouldn’t be afraid to let everyone in the gym know when he scored.

‘Motor’ was always the first word brought up when discussing his ability, and McGary carried that on to the college ranks as well, but that’s where his shortcomings began to catch up with him.

For starters, McGary has a sweet tooth. And a grease tooth. As a result, his weight reached as much as 275 pounds this season, but a renewed dedication to conditioning and a focus on maintaining a healthier diet has led to McGary streamlining his body, shedding 20 pounds as he stopped eating deliciously chubbifying foods like “pizza, hamburgers, fatty foods and a lot of junk food”.

“Right now, I’m at about 255 and I want to keep losing weight and build muscle and just lean up even more,” McGary said. “It has helped my motor even more. I’m a high motor guy who likes to get going and stay active. Now with less weight, I think I have more endurance and I’m able to stay on the court longer periods of time.”

Shedding those pounds has also helped McGary’s quickness, which means that he’s caught out of position on the defensive end less often. Part of the reason that his minutes were inconsistent earlier in the season is that he would pick up silly, quick fouls that forced him to the bench. “He’s gotten to play longer stretches of time because he’s getting to spots quicker and he’s working earlier in possessions,” assistant coach Bacari Alexander said.

The other aspect of the game where McGary has really developed is in his understanding of the Michigan offense and his role in it. One of the most difficult things for any freshman to do is to learn how to slow down. College basketball, especially at the Big Ten level, is played at such a different speed than in high school that there is a tendency for them to rush, to hurry. Maybe it’s running off of a pick before the screener is set. Maybe it’s over-playing a pass on the defense end of the floor and getting beat back door. Maybe it’s the unforced turnovers that stem from being to anxious with the ball in your hands. That’s a skill, and it takes time — and reps — to develop it, just like any other skill.

There’s a reason that one of John Wooden’s most famous quotes is “be quick but don’t hurry”.

According to Alexander, McGary’s development has had as much to do with his ability to slow down as it has with his newfound health-kick. He’s learned how to read a defense. He’s learned why doing things a certain way will put him in a better position to succeed.

“The thing that I’m most pleased with is that he’s playing with a purpose,” Alexander said. “When he’s out there getting rebounds, he understands what he had to do to achieve that. When he’s finishing layups, he understands the footwork to get that done.”

“You’re seeing a much more under control Mitch McGary.”

It’s paid off, as McGary has not only been the best player on Michigan during March, he’s been the breakout star of the 2013 NCAA tournament. Through four games, he’s averaging 17.5 points and 11.5 boards. He gave all-american center Jeff Withey 25 points and 14 boards when the Wolverines landed a come-from-behind win over Kansas in overtime, doing most of his damage earlier in the game to keep Michigan within striking distance. He had eight points and five boards in the first few minutes to set the tone in Michigan’s blowout win over Florida.

It’s not a coincidence that this hot streak has happened with McGary taking over the role of starting center.

“My confidence has been sky rocketed since the last five or six games,” he said.

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McGary’s growth as a player started before he even reached Michigan.

During his time at Brewster, McGary was forced to play a reduced role on a team that had more weapons than any team he had played on before.

“I had to take the back seat,” he said, “be more of a team player than the star of the team. I kind of did that, and I knew I would have to do that in college.”

But it didn’t come without consequence. McGary’s ranking dropped from top three in the class to closer to the top 50. Some of that was the result of scouts realizing the limitations of his game. Some of it was the reduced role that he found himself. But that doesn’t mean that it was easy to see his name sliding, and it was even harder when he got to Michigan and found himself coming off the bench. He didn’t play more than 20 minutes in a game until the new year, and he didn’t become the full-time starter until the start of the tournament.

“It’s kind of hard to come in and want to accept your role, especially when you’ve been the leading scorer all your life,” longtime friend and teammate Glenn Robinson III said. “He learned his role, learned the offense, and learned what Coach B wants from him.”

Coach B is John Beilein.

Given the success that McGary has had taking Beilein’s advice as a player, it will be interesting to see if he listens to him off the court as well.

“I think maybe after the season I’ll bring [the unicycles] up and ride it around,” McGary said.

But will coach be OK with you riding it?

“Maybe,” he said with a laugh. “We’ll talk about it.”

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

AP Top 25: Arizona State leapfrogs Duke to No. 3

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Arizona State leap-frogged Duke and climbed to No. 3 in the AP Poll this week after Wichita State lost to Oklahoma in Wichita.

Villanova remained at No. 1, receiving 45 first-place votes, while Michigan State was again No. 2.

The Sun Devils received five first-place votes.

Wichita State fell to No. 11 with the loss.

Here is the full top 25:

1. Villanova (45 first-place votes)
2. Michigan State (15)
3. Arizona State (5)
4. Duke
5. North Carolina
6. Miami
7. Kentucky
8. Texas A&M
9. Xavier
10. West Virginia
11. Wichita State
12. Gonzaga
13. Virginia
14. Kansas
15. TCU
16. Purdue
17. Oklahoma
18. Baylor
18. Arizona
20. Cincinnati
21. Texas Tech
21. Tennessee
23. Seton Hall
24. Florida State
25. Creighton

Team of the Week: North Carolina Tar Heels

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No. 7 North Carolina went into Knoxville on Sunday afternoon and picked off a good, scrappy No. 20 Tennessee team in front of a raucous crowd in a game where they did not even play all that well.

The win pushed the Tar Heels to 10-1 on the season, and it easily their most impressive victory to date.

There are a lot of things about this North Carolina team that I don’t like. They really only have one proven offensive weapon, depending on how you view Luke Maye. They are a program built on having a frontline that is better than their opponent’s frontline, but this year have to rely on a stretchy-four in Maye and a trio of freshmen that may or may not actually be ready to play at this level. I’m not convinced they have the three-point shooting they need, either.

But here we are, nearly six weeks into the season, and the Tar Heels have just a single loss to their name – which came against Michigan State – and just picked up a win at Tennessee. Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks appear to be growing into the roles that they are being asked to play. Maye has looked like an all-american for the most part. They’re shooting 40 percent from three on the season. They’re defending.

And, as a result, they’re winning.

THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Rutgers: Saturday could not have gone much better for the Rutgers program. They erased a 13-point deficit and came back from nine points down with six minutes left as they won for the first time in four games against in-state rival and No. 15 Seton Hall. They closed the game on a 17-2 run to land the biggest win of the Steve Pikiell era, and they did it in front of a packed house at the RAC. They picked a good day to prove too their fan base that their is something to be excited about with this team.
  • Oklahoma: The Sooners made a statement on Saturday, going into Wichita and knocking off the Shockers in impressive fashion. They were up by 15 points at halftime and never were truly threatened in the second half.
  • Kentucky: For the first time since the fifth day of the season, Kentucky played a game against a team that was actually relevant, beating Virginia Tech, 93-86, in what turned out to be a shootout in Rupp Arena on Saturday afternoon. The most important part of that win wasn’t the win itself; it was the fact that Kentucky went 11-for-22 from three in the process. Their ability to make perimeter shots has, clearly, been the major question mark with this group, and while they still need to prove they can be consistent, making it clear that they are at least capable of shooting like this matters.
  • Indiana: Archie Miller landed the first marquee win of his tenure, as his Indiana team overcame a 14-point first half deficit and an eight-point deficit with just over two minutes remaining to knock off No. 18 Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic. Performances like this is why Miller was hired for this job.
  • Cincinnati: After losing two straight, capped by a loss to Florida in the Never Forget Classic last weekend, the Bearcats bounced back with a pair of solid wins this week. They handed Mississippi State their first loss of the season on Tuesday and followed that up with a win over UCLA in Pauley Pavilion on Saturday.

Player of the Week: Juwan Morgan, Indiana

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Juwan Morgan made Bankers Life Fieldhouse his home on Saturday afternoon.

Not only did he post a career-high 34 points to go along with his 11 rebounds against No. 18 Notre Dame, but he did the majority of his damage in crunch time. Morgan scored the final 12 points in regulation for Indiana, points that came as the Hoosiers erased an eight-point deficit in the final two minutes and change. Morgan then scored eight of Indiana’s 15 points in overtime, including four points in the final 11 seconds.

Indiana trailed by three with 11 seconds left on the clock when Morgan was fouled on a layup. He missed the free throw, but Indiana grabbed an offensive rebound and it wound up in Morgan’s hands, whose dunk was the game-winning basket.

There was more meaning to this win than simply beating a top 20 in-state rival.

Archie Miller is still in the process of building a program in Bloomington. He’s developing a brand, so to speak, and while his team is still going to be at a talent-deficit more often than not, this is tangible evidence that things are trending in the right direction. Miller’s Dayton programs were built around versatile and under-sized forwards and tough defense.

That’s what we saw on Saturday from Indiana.

THE ALL-‘THEY WERE GOOD, TOO’ TEAM

  • TRAE YOUNG, Oklahoma: Young continued what has been a sensational season to date, scoring 21 of his 29 points and handing out seven of his 10 assists in the first half as the Sooners paid a visit to No. 3 Wichita State and left with a statement victory. The Sooners were up by 15 at halftime and threw it into cruise control in the second half.
  • UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas: After a week full of criticisms for the inability of this Kansas team to find a way to get the ball into the paint, the Jayhawks finally did. Azubuike finished with 26 points on 13-for-17 shooting to go along with 10 boards and a game-saving block as the Jayhawks escaped a trip to Nebraska with a 73-72 win.
  • RAWLE ALKINS, Arizona: We finally got a glimpse of what Arizona was missing without Alkins in the lineup, as he went for 26 points on 11 field goal attempts to go along with five boards and a pair of assists. Arizona cruised to a win at New Mexico despite the fact that Allonzo Trier took just nine shots and Deandre Ayton scored just 14 points.
  • OSHAE BRISSETT, Syracuse: Brissett set a pair of career-highs in Syracuse come-from-behind win over arch-rival Georgetown on Saturday. The Orange were down by 13 points in the second half. Brissett scored 24 of his 25 points and grabbed 10 of his 14 rebounds in the second half and overtime.
  • COREY SANDERS, Rutgers: Sanders finished with 22 points – including a huge jumper with a minute left to put the Scarlet Knights up 67-63 – as Steve Pikiell and Rutgers landed their biggest win, coming from nine down with six minutes left to beat their biggest in-state rival, No. 15 Seton Hall.

College Basketball Power Rankings: Wichita State’s loss, Oklahoma’s gain, and ‘why Arizona?’

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It seemed like this was going to be a pretty straight-forward week for the Power Rankings … until Saturday happened, and five top 25 teams lost to unranked opponents.

The toughest one to figure out what to do with was Wichita State, who dropped all the way down to No. 16 from No. 3. They currently sit one spot behind Oklahoma, who beat them in Wichita on Saturday. Ranking the Shockers is a difficult thing to do at this point in the schedule, mainly because what we see on the floor from them doesn’t exactly jibe with what we assume that program to be.

They have not been themselves defensively through the first six weeks of the season. Or maybe they have and they just aren’t as good on that end of the floor as we assumed they would be. However you slice, the bottom-line is this: If Wichita State is not among the nation’s elite defensively they are not going to be in the conversation with Villanova, Michigan State and Duke as one of college basketball’s best. They just don’t have the horsepower on the other end of the floor.

The ranking that I got the most push-back on last week was putting Arizona at No. 6. They’re at No. 5 this week, up a spot after Wichita State dropped out. My reasoning is this: I am generally going to bet on talent, and rare will be the night when Arizona is not the most talented team on the floor. How many teams in the country will they play where Allonzo Trier and Deandre Ayton are not the two-best players on the floor? Maybe five? Ten, tops? And of those five-to-ten teams, I don’t think a single one of them can claim that they have two of the three best players on the floor.

And now they have Rawle Alkins back, who just went for 26 points on 11 shots at New Mexico.

Since the disaster in the Bahamas, Arizona has won five straight. They won at UNLV. They won a semi-home game against a very good Texas A&M team. They beat Alabama. They handled New Mexico fairly easily in The Pit. In a year where everyone has warts, I’m fine being the first one to say that those three games in Atlantis were just one of those weird things that happen in college basketball.

Anyway, here are this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Villanova, 10-0 (Last Week: No. 1)
2. Michigan State, 10-1 (2)
3. Miami, 9-0 (3)
4. Duke, 11-1 (5)
5. Arizona, 8-3 (6)
6. Arizona State, 10-0 (7)
7. Texas A&M, 9-1 (8)
8. North Carolina, 10-1 (12)
9. Xavier, 10-1 (9)
10. West Virginia, 9-1 (10)
11. Purdue, 11-2 (16)
12. Gonzaga, 9-2 (14)
13. Kansas, 7-2 (13)
14. Kentucky, 9-1 (17)
15. Oklahoma, 8-1 (19)
16. Wichita State, 8-2 (3)
17. Seton Hall, 9-2 (11)
18. Virginia, 9-1 (18)
19. TCU, 10-0 (25)
20. Notre Dame, 8-3 (15)
21. Cincinnati, 9-2 (23)
22. Tennessee, 7-2 (20)
23. Texas Tech, 9-1 (24)
24. Baylor, 9-2 (NR)
25. Arkansas, 8-2 (NR)

NEW ADDITIONS: 24. Baylor, 25. Arkansas

DROPPED OUT: 21. Florida State, 22. Florida

No. 5 Arizona State rallies to beat Vanderbilt 76-64

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TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Arizona State came out flat, missing shots, tossing balls into the stands, allowing open 3-pointers.

The No. 5 team in the country? The Sun Devils looked more like they should be unranked, not among college basketball’s elite.

In a matter of minutes, it all changed. Arizona State forced turnovers, got out on the break and dropped in 3-pointers to keep the crowd on its feet.

Once the Sun Devils get rolling like this, there’s no stopping them.

Tra Holder scored 25 points, Shannon Evans II added 15 and No. 5 Arizona State overcame a dismal start with a massive halftime-spanning run to beat Vanderbilt 76-64 on Sunday. The Sun Devils improved to 10-0 for the first time in their history.

“We had the bursts and it’s great we took the game from a one-two possession game and all of a sudden it’s mid-doubles,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said. “It happens fast.”

Arizona State built a national buzz with last week’s road win over Kansas and its highest ranking in 36 years.

The Sun Devils looked nothing like the team that won at Allen Fieldhouse early against Vanderbilt (3-7), falling into a 13-0 hole. Once one of the nation’s most explosive teams finally came to life, Vanderbilt had no chance.

Sharp at both ends, Arizona State used a 26-3 run spanning halftime to turn what started out as an embarrassing performance into a runaway that had Wells Fargo Arena the loudest it’s been all season.

Mickey Mitchell provided the Sun Devils a spark off the bench, playing solid defense while grabbing 13 rebounds. Arizona State hit 14 of 28 shots in the second half to remain one of the nation’s four undefeated teams.

Saben Lee had 24 points to lead Vanderbilt, which shot 4 of 30 from 3-point range.

“We’re a small team, like ASU, and we have to make 3s,” Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew said.

Following last Sunday’s 10-point win over then-No. 2 Kansas, the Sun Devils moved up to No. 5, their highest ranking since being No. 3 in 1980-81, and received five first-place votes in the Top 25, a program first.

Suddenly, they were a trendy pick to make a Final Four. Hurley was being touted as a national coach of the year candidate by the coach of Arizona State’s biggest rival. A buzz spread across the Valley of the Sun and beyond about the program being touted as “Guard U.”

The spotlight appeared to be too bright for the Sun Devils early against Vanderbilt.

Disjointed and struggling with double teams in the post, Arizona State had five turnovers in the game’s opening five minutes. The Sun Devils didn’t score until Romello White’s layup at 14:49, and the fans who were rowdy long before tipoff groaned with each miscue.

“We were knocking down shots and they were missing at the beginning,” Lee said.

Then Arizona State got back to playing the way it had to open the season.

The Sun Devils harassed the Commodores into difficult shots late in the shot clock and jumped into passing lanes to create turnovers. Shots missed earlier at the rim started going in, and they made a couple of late 3-pointers after missing their first nine.

Holder had one of those 3s, dropping a deep one at the halftime buzzer that put Arizona State up 30-29.

The Sun Devils kept the engine revving in the second half, scoring 12 straight points to push the lead to 49-31. Vanderbilt made one push, but got no closer than 12.

“We were just a little rusty. We had a long week off,” said Holder, who made all 11 of his free throws. “But we got back to our groove.”

BIG PICTURE

Vanderbilt showed it can play with highly-ranked teams in the opening 10 minutes. The final 30 showed the Commodores still have plenty of work to do before the SEC season starts.

Arizona State looked like the No. 5 team in the country after its shaky start and could move up in Monday’s poll after No. 3 Wichita State lost.

LEE’S HOMECOMING

Lee grew up in Arizona and played at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, so Sunday’s game was a homecoming of sorts.

The freshman guard is Vanderbilt’s assist leader with 34 and made 9 of 14 shots to set a career high in points.

“It was pretty weird, knowing that I watched a lot of games here and now I’m going against them,” Lee said. “But it was a good experience..”

UP NEXT

Vanderbilt hosts Houston Baptist on Wednesday.

Arizona State hosts Longwood on Tuesday.