Louisville guard Russ Smith is the most dynamic player in college basketball.
Few dispute that or question why his nickname is “Russdiculous.”
Michigan point guard Trey Burke has the most individual hardware, including the John Wooden Award. He was selected last week as The Associated Press’ National Player of the Year.
Both elite guards will be deeply involved in deciding Monday’s national championship in the Georgia Dome.
But if you’re looking for the true X-factor of this NCAA Tournament, seeking to identify the guy whose play probably looms as most pivotal to his team’s success in Monday’s title game, look no further than Michigan freshman Mitch McGary.
McGary (6-foot-10, 250 pounds) is the only master unicyclist left in the tournament averaging a double-double during March Madness. In the Wolverines’ 5-0 tournament run, McGary has averaged 16 points and 11.6 rebounds per game.
Yet when the freshman forward is announced as part of the Wolverines’ starting lineup in Atlanta, he will be making only his eighth start of the season.
McGary’s increased role as a player has corresponded to his decreased waistline. By limiting his intake of candy and greasy foods, McGary said Sunday that he’s dropped 20 pounds, which has helped him evolve from a role player to a difference maker in the Wolverines’ tournament run.
Coaches and teammates say he’s quicker, leaner, meaner and savvier than he was earlier this season, when his playing time was limited. McGary agreed, although the emotional and fun-loving freshman does not spend much time dwelling on what he’s done — other than going on a diet — to improve his game.
“I don’t even know what goes through my mind out there,” said McGary, who honed his impressive unicycle skills by pedaling a 1.4-mile route each day while delivering newspapers as an 11-year-old. “It’s all based off instincts. I just go out there with a warrior’s mentality and a will to win. I’ve always been an emotional kid. I bring the energy and I know my teammates feed off that.”
Michigan (31-7) staggered to the finish line to close the regular season, going 3-3 in its last six games before entering the NCAA Tournament.
Once in the Big Dance, McGary has emerged as the final piece of the puzzle for a team that suddenly is one victory away from the school’s first national championship since 1989.
McGary announced his presence on the national stage with a 25-point, 14-rebound performance in the team’s 87-85 overtime victory over top-seeded Kansas in a Sweet 16 matchup at Cowboys Stadium.
He took things to another level in Saturday night’s 61-56 victory over Syracuse, contributing another double-double (10 points, 12 rebounds) and added a career-high six assists. That’s two more than Burke, the nation’s premier point guard, dished out in the Wolverines’ biggest game of the season.
“He was really good,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who admitted being surprised by McGary’s skills as a facilitator against his team’s 2-3 zone defense. “They’re a different team with his presence inside. He’s a dominant offensive player. Before, he was not a factor.”
He’s always been a factor on the backboards, where McGary has grabbed 240 rebounds in 740 minutes this season. That’s one every 3.1 minutes, which translates to a 12.9 average for a full game.
In terms of Monday’s hoops forecast, it’s a simple one: Michigan, a No. 4 seed, has a legitimate chance to upset top-seed Louisville (34-5) if McGary posts another double-double to cap his eye-popping postseason. If not, expect the Cardinals to cut down the nets in Atlanta.
Louisville coaches and players understand the challenge they face in dealing with Michigan’s X-factor.
“He is playing better basketball than anybody in this tournament right now,” said Louisville center Gorgui Dieng, a junior who will be the Cardinals’ primary defender against McGary. “I respect him a lot. But like coach [Rick] Pitino always tells me, ‘You can have a good freshman. But sometimes, they will make mistakes.’”
Although Michigan coach John Beilein concedes McGary still mixes in some freshman mistakes on a nightly basis, none have been game-killers in Michigan’s tournament run. McGary’s final exam comes Monday.
“We have a saying, ‘Let’s be good before you’re great,’” Beilin said. “In this tournament, he’s played good. He’s made a good team a great team because he’s played that way.”
If that continues Monday, Michigan’s X-factor could make an underdog a national champion.