- Patrick Barron/Daily
By Simon Kaufman, Daily Sports Writer
Published November 17, 2013
AMES, Iowa — With 16:17 remaining in the first half, Michigan basketball fans rejoiced as sophomore forward Mitch McGary entered the game for the Wolverines to make his season debut.
At the 14:50 mark, Michigan coach John Beilein nodded his head as McGary went up for a defensive rebound and came back down with the ball in his hands — a familiar sight for the big man who averaged more than six rebounds per game last year.
A little more than two minutes later, the Wolverines’ bench stood up when McGary put up an offensive rebound for his first points of the season, then followed it up 18 seconds later with a steal and finish on the other end.
With 11:55 on the clock in the first half, McGary fell backward while trying to make a defensive play. He lay on his back — the back that until Sunday night had been injured and kept him sidelined this year — and for just a moment. Michigan waited. The 6-foot-10 forward shot up his hands, but not in pain, and he reached for the hands of teammates who pulled him up.
McGary stood up, and the maize and blue breathed a collective sigh of relief — a little longer this time, a little more stress-free.
Before the season started, the country was told to keep its eyes on McGary. He was one of five players named to the AP preseason All-American team, and on Sunday night in Michigan’s game against Iowa State, McGary found out that the country listened to the preseason predictions — he was a target. He endured tough physical defense, and perhaps an even more grueling assault of verbal abuse thrashed out by the student section at Hilton Coliseum where Iowa State (3-0) upset No. 7 Michigan, 77-70.
“They have great fans. It’s a little shaky when they single out one person,” McGary said.
The insults didn’t seem to faze him, but his presence alone on the court couldn’t propel Michigan toward a win in its first road game of the season. It did, however, allow for a sneak peek of what’s to come from the Chesterton, Ind. native in his second year.
Michigan (2-1) started the game with the same lineup it had used in its first two games, but McGary came in early to replace redshirt junior forward Jon Horford who has started at center in McGary’s absence. He made a quick impact, putting in eight points in the first half.
McGary had only one point in the second half, but still he brought elements to the game that Horford and fifth-year senior forward Jordan Morgan simply cannot. He scrapped for tough rebounds, fighting off several Cyclones by himself around the rim, and came up with four steals, grabbing and clawing at Iowa State players with the ball.
“It was great to be back,” McGary said. “(I’m) just trying to find the chemistry on the court. It’s difficult in the first game.”
Some parts of McGary’s game did look rusty. He struggled at times to keep up with the Cyclone’s fast pace and his timing on offense appeared delayed — all byproducts of not having played at game speed since April.
“Now he’s got to get into shape to be able to play,” Beilein said. “The bigs can’t play for more than three to four minutes anyhow because of the fact of how busy the game is for bigs right now. So he’ll go in, and he’ll go out, but the timing is the thing that he’s got to work on now.”
Certainly, this is a different Michigan team with McGary healthy. If he’s able to adjust his timing and show the same dominance that brought him the spotlight during his performance in the NCAA Tournament last season, he’ll quickly learn to embrace being the target.