The third segment of our conversation with Josh Bartelstein focuses on Mitch McGary’s development, the start of Michigan’s NCAA tournament run and Trey Burke’s shot against Kansas.
Speaking of young guys, let’s talk about the development of Mitch McGary. Was there a point during the season when you saw him begin to fulfill his potential before the fans saw him do it on the court against VCU?
Looking at this year’s NBA Draft, there is no player I would take over Mitch McGary, because of the potential he has. I think he can be an absolute star. I saw it from the day he walked on campus just looking at the things he could do. I’ll never forget this: we had our winter break this year, and Chesterton’s on the way home for me, so Mitch and I drove home together. And I knew that when Mitch got home to Indiana there would be a million people saying, ‘Why aren’t you playing? Why aren’t you doing this or that?’ So I said, ‘Mitch. You’re going to be so good. You just have to stay with it. People are going to say you should transfer and go to these other schools, but Michigan is the place for you.’ And he had a moment where he was like, ‘I know this is going to be hard, but it’s going to pay off in the long run.’ And you could just see when he came back from winter break he started putting in so much more time and went on the diet and lost the weight, and just worked at it. He worked and worked and worked. And sure enough, right when he finally turned it on, he became one of the best players in the country. I saw it all along. I would tell my friends, ‘Trust me that this guy is going to be a monster. You just have to give him some time because he’s been hurt and he’s out of shape.’ All the credit to Mitch for getting in shape. If there were five kids to pick this upcoming basketball season, Mitch would be one of my first five picks, there’s no doubt about it.
And the thing you have to remember is that with any progress, you’re not going to just go from A to B just like that. It’s a slow process. With Michigan’s program and with Mitch, you want a slow incline that just keeps going up and keeps going up. That’s what you saw from Mitch. I really think he kind of rededicated himself. He thought long and hard over Christmas break: how good do I want to be? Do I want to be a guy who people say, ‘He’s got a lot of potential? Or do I want to be a guy who’s leading the college basketball world on the front page of ESPN? The credit goes to him. Anyone can talk about it with him, but he did it.
It felt like you guys kind of limped into the NCAA tournament after a disappointing finish to the regular season. What was the mindset of the team entering the postseason?
We haven’t really spoken about this. After we got off the bus, after we lost to Wisconsin (in the second round of the Big Ten tournament) and bussed back, coach Meyer gave us one of the best speeches of the year. He told us, ‘This team we assembled is made for the NCAA tournament. It’s not made for the Big Ten Tournament. We don’t play a ton of guys, but we have the best backcourt in the country; we have a combination of centers we’d take over anyone; we have great small forwards and power forwards; we’re made for this tournament where you can rest and prepare. Forget the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan basketball is not made to play four games in four days — that would have hurt us going forward.’ After losing that second game in the Big Ten Tournament, we were able to go home, let Trey rest his back, let Tim rest his feet, let Mitch rest his body and say, ‘You know what? Let’s get ready for the NCAA tournament.’ If we had beat Wisconsin, I’m not so sure we would have beat VCU. You have to have so much energy to be able to play those games, that playing three games in three days when you only play seven or eight guys is not good. So coach Meyer said, ‘Forget that, this team was built to play in the NCAA tournament.’ And the truth is, the first game of the tournament is always the hardest. It’s a huge stage. In the first half, we did not play well. If it weren’t for Tim Hardaway saying, ‘I’m the best player on the court right now, there’s no one who can stop me,’ I’m not so sure we would have won that game. That was our toughest game other than Kansas and then Louisville. Once we won that first game, it was like, okay, we’re one game away from the Sweet Sixteen, that’s a huge thing. Let’s just win.
You give coach Beilein a week to prepare for a team, with our assistants, the game planning that those guys have is second to none. You may lose the game, but it won’t be because they didn’t go over every idea. And coach Beilein is just, there’s no coach better than him at thinking up plays and attacking a zone. Our coaches give us a huge advantage in tournament-style games because they’re so prepared and they have such a great plan going in.
After the VCU game, did you sense a shift in the way you guys thought about what you could do in this tournament?
It was a perfect game. Coach Jordan created the perfect game plan to beat their press. Teams that try to rush the ball inbounds and beat the press because they think they’re going to beat it with their speed turn the ball over. But if you take your time and spread the court and let them dictate where we want to go, you do well. Trey would just walk up the court, and then when they trapped him he threw it ahead and Tim had gotten so much better at making decisions that we just got layups over and over again. The NCAA tournament is such a massive thing, starting with 68 teams. Once you get to the 16 team mark, you get the feeling that you’re right there. And yes we had to take it each game at a time, but I really told the guys to look forward to that second week because that’s when it becomes a big event. Once we got there, campus was abuzz, Mitch had taken over. Everyone watches ESPN, they read twitter, they know what’s going on. Michigan looked like the best team in the tournament. You start practicing, and you think, you know what? Why can’t we get to the Final Four? And that just takes on a whole new meaning. That’s when we really got rolling, and everyone just kind of jumped on.
It seemed like Mitch’s progress throughout the tournament really opened up a unique situation for Michigan, where all of a sudden you had this weapon that was also a total unknown. How did that open up your preparation as a team?
There wasn’t a ton of film, guys didn’t know which spots he was comfortable at on the court, and it opened up our whole offense. Mitch has such great hands and such great touch around the basket, that Trey would throw him these underhanded lob passes that are really tough catches to make, and he would finish him. Florida was like, we can’t let Mitch beat us, so we’re gonna pack in the lane and make them hit threes; well, then you have Nik Stauskas make six threes in a half. Kansas was like, we’re not going to have Trey Burke beat us, so we’re going to have Jeff Withey contest every shot. Kansas is so similar to Wisconsin — they wanted you to shoot contested pull-up jumpshots. So all week during practice, it was Trey pulling up like he was about to shoot it and then at the last second he’d pass it to Mitch. All week, that’s what we did. Jeff Withey was going to try to stop Trey, and Mitch just kept rolling and rolling and rolling and there’s no one there. Mitch just created so much space because you can’t take away everything. You have an All-American point guard and big giant shooters. We were picking our spots, and we just got rolling.
Speaking of the Kansas game, the one thing I’ll never forget after watching the replay of Trey’s shot was the fact that you were on the court celebrating almost before the ball had left his hands. Are you psychic?
That might be the best thing I ever do with my life, predict the future. Everyone wants to know how I knew it was going in. It all starts at Bud Walton Arena (against Arkansas) two years ago, we’re down maybe 20-2 and we come back to have a shot to win at the buzzer, and Trey’s shot goes in and out. And as we’re walking to the bus, Zack and Stu and I are talking to Trey and we say, ‘Before this is over, you’re going to make a much more important game-winning shot. It would have been nice to beat Arkansas, but you’re going to make one when it matter way more.’ Then we go to Ohio State this year. We’re 16-0. Trey’s 3-pointer goes in and out. ‘Trey, you’ll make this shot when it’s way more important.’ Against Wisconsin, score is tied in overtime, ‘Trey you’ll make a shot when it’s more important, trust me.’ Then we get to Indiana, and the ball rolls out. ‘Trey, you’ll make a shot that’s more important.’ And by this point, Trey had become an iconic figure in college basketball and Michigan basketball.
So when Kansas missed that free throw and Trey had the ball, I told Matt and Blake, who were sitting next to me, ‘I would bet my life he will make this three.’ Now, if I had known he was going to shoot it from half-court, I might not have bet my life. But when he pulled up — I knew this kid had done everything imaginable for a college basketball player, and he just needed that one iconic shot, the Trey Burke Shot. And that was it. As soon as he pulled up, I knew it was going in so I jumped up. And he made me look really smart because he made it. It was an unbelievable moment. That whole last eight minutes, we did everything so well. We lost to Penn State and we lost to Indiana. One of the key things we talked about was not relying on threes when we got down. I know it sounds crazy with Trey’s shot, but if you watch those minutes, Kansas figured the only way Michigan will beat us is if they make a bunch of threes, so they left the lane wide open. So you had Mitch getting dump-offs, Glenn got layups, Trey attacked the basket. And because they were so scared to foul and so scared to give up easy threes, we just attacked and got easy layups. So they’re blowing this huge lead, they’re a one seed, and now everything’s on our side. But I’m telling you, if we don’t lose to Indiana, if we don’t lose to Penn State and we don’t talk about these things, I mean really talk about it — that was a key thing: when you’re losing, don’t settle for threes — we beat Kansas because we attacked the basket, which we hadn’t done all year at the end of games.
A huge moment in that game was at the 4-minute timeout, Corey and I were talking in the huddle and Glenn Robinson tells us all to shut up because he’s got something to say. Glenn wasn’t a guy who stood up a lot in huddles, but when he took it on himself he was talking about a defensive assignment he wanted to change. When Glenn spoke up in the huddle, I said to Corey, ‘We’re going to win this game now.’ Glenn got the guys talking about defense and Trey was talking to guys, and all the sudden this team that was shell-shocked from being down 16 was seeing guys speak who hadn’t spoken up all year. I thought the craziest play was when Jordan dove on the floor for that loose ball and threw it to Glenn. The kind of athlete you have to be to make that reverse layup is incredible. We did everything right, they did a few things wrong, but when you’re trying to play your way back, that’s how you’re supposed to play.
The fourth segment of Josh Bartelstein’s season recap focuses on the Final Four.