ANN ARBOR, Mich. – There are times when Mitch McGary gives his coach no choice but to pause and maybe take a deep breath before speaking.
After a season of working with the 6-foot-10 freshman, John Beilein understands the drill.
"I've learned to wait for a minute — almost count to five — before I try and address him after he does something either good or bad," Beilein said. "It's all good, but you do have to be patient when you speak with him, because he does get very enthusiastic about certain things."
Beilein's patience was rewarded last weekend, when McGary had 21 points and 14 rebounds in Michigan's 78-53 victory over Virginia Commonwealth. The Wolverines reached the NCAA tournament's round of 16 for the first time since 1994, and although their stellar guard play was crucial in handling VCU's pressure, it was McGary's presence inside that the Rams had no answer for.
The 250-pound big man shot 10 of 11 from the field. It was one of the best individual performances by a Michigan player this season — and that's saying something on a team that includes point guard Trey Burke, a national player of the year candidate.
"That's Mitch McGary — he brings intensity to this game and he's kind of like our X-factor," Burke said. "He's the guy that gives us the spark and makes our engine run in the frontcourt."
Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III can hurt teams with their athleticism and unselfish passing, but the Wolverines are largely a finesse team. McGary brings a different element. Like the proverbial bull in a china shop, he bounces around the court, setting screens, positioning himself for rebounds and chasing loose balls.
Throughout his coaching career, Beilein's teams have been smart, fundamentally sound groups that space the floor well on offense and beat opponents with both skill and savvy. When McGary is on the court, nobody seems to know what he'll do next.
Whether he was scoring on putbacks or flattening somebody with a pick Saturday, McGary added a physicality that his teammates don't always play with.
"I was just able to get open looks when they would attack the ball," McGary said. "Trey and Tim would find the open man and we would attack the basket."
McGary, Robinson and Nik Stauskas are the most prominent members of a freshman class that has contributed all season for Michigan, but McGary has only started four games and needs to avoid foul trouble to be effective.
Still, he leads the Wolverines at 5.9 rebounds per game despite averaging only 18.4 minutes. When Jordan Morgan struggled coming back from an ankle injury, McGary was put in the starting lineup for the team's NCAA tournament opener against South Dakota State.
Against VCU, the Wolverines did a good job handling the ball against pressure, and the Rams didn't seem ready to deal with McGary around the basket.
"I was just getting open looks. Trey and Tim and Glenn, they were all feeding me and everybody was just feeding off the energy," McGary said. "So it built. I'm honored to be starting, but at the same time I know I have to start or come off the bench and bring the same energy."
Michigan is hoping McGary has taken a permanent step forward, but the next test will be a tough one. The fourth-seeded Wolverines play Friday against top-seeded Kansas and 7-footer Jeff Withey.
If their freshman can hold his own, there may be no limit to what the Wolverines can accomplish in this tournament.
"He's just learning what winners and champions do," Beilein said. "He's got a great family. He's really worked very hard to get to where he is right now, and we love coaching him, because he's a team guy through and through."