In Michigan's final game of the regular season — with the Big Ten title on the line — Mitch McGary played only eight minutes. He scored two points, committed four fouls and couldn't keep Indiana from dominating the boards in a crushing one-point loss to the Hoosiers.
Less than a month later, McGary may be the biggest reason Michigan has a chance to win a far more important championship.
"Mitch McGary in the beginning of the year was a good player who had really good potential," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "Now he's a great player, one of the premier big guys in our country. So he's not a freshman, doesn't play like a freshman."
When Michigan takes the court against Louisville in Monday night's NCAA title game, the Wolverines will be led by national player of the year Trey Burke and meticulously-prepared coach John Beilein — but it's McGary who suddenly has everyone's attention. The tireless 6-foot-10 freshman is averaging a double-double in this tournament after spending almost the entire season as a backup.
"Adrenaline plays a lot," McGary said. "A lot of us are pretty tired during this stretch. I might have a little more in me because I have not played as many minutes as these guys, so maybe I have a little extra push in my step."
Michigan was ranked No. 1 in the nation at the start of February, but by the time the NCAA tournament started, the Wolverines looked a lot less likely to make a run to the Final Four. In fact, they'd looked soft at times toward the end of the Big Ten season. McGary brought a lot of energy to the court, but he wasn't particularly polished.
But starter Jordan Morgan was having his own problems coming back from a midseason ankle injury, so McGary was put in the starting lineup for the team's NCAA tournament opener against South Dakota State. It was only his third start of the season.
"His practice habits, his overall focus on the game continues to evolve," Beilein said. "It was never bad, but it's at a point where he realizes, 'Boy, this stuff works.' He knows that, but he's young. He continues to learn just like all my guys are."
McGary had 13 points and nine rebounds against South Dakota State, and against Virginia Commonwealth in the next round, he had 21 points and 14 rebounds while shooting 10 of 11 from the field.
The regional semifinal against Kansas was a bigger test: McGary against 7-footer Jeff Withey. McGary finished with 25 points and 14 rebounds, and Burke carried the Wolverines late in an overtime victory.
In the Wolverines' five NCAA tournament victories this year, McGary is shooting 70 percent from the field. He has 80 points and 58 rebounds — the most in the tournament since at least 1997 for a player who had fewer than five starts beforehand, according to STATS. In 2005, North Carolina's Marvin Williams had 72 points and 44 rebounds to help the Tar Heels win the national title. Williams didn't start a game all season and still went on to be the second pick in that year's NBA draft.
McGary's stock is also rising. The Chesterton, Ind., product spent two seasons at prep school at Brewster Academy of New Hampshire before coming to Michigan. He turns 21 in June, so his sudden maturation over the last few weeks isn't a total shock.
"He's got so much potential and so much talent," Beilein said. "I have a thing, that sometimes your strength can be your weakness. He's so skilled, he sees so many things, maybe sometimes tries to do so much. ... He's made a good team a great team."
In the national semifinals against Syracuse on Saturday night, Michigan needed to find a way to score consistently against the Orange's zone defense. McGary brought his usual physicality, finishing with 10 points and 12 rebounds, but he also had six assists. His ability to hurt Syracuse from the high post was crucial — he had only 18 assists all season going into that game.
The last hurdle may be the hardest for Michigan. Louisville can pressure the Wolverines, and the Cardinals' half-court defense is also impressive. Michigan has Burke, but Louisville has a star guard of its own in Russ Smith.
The title game could come down to McGary and whether he can outhustle and outmuscle Louisville inside. That possibility seemed pretty remote a month ago, but McGary is learning fast and enjoying every step of his remarkable rise.
"My confidence level has skyrocketed," McGary said. "I bring the energy and they feed off of that and our team is just peaking at the right moment, and I am just glad to still be playing."