On Friday afternoon, Michigan announced that star forward Mitch McGary had finally had enough.
McGary had been nagged by back problems since the summer. He missed practices, he missed games. When he returned, he was mostly effective, but he was rehabbing and nursing pain like a 15-year NBA veteran. Then, Saturday, he didn’t play at all in Michigan’s 68-65 win over Stanford -- a telling sign in a game the Wolverines desperately needed. McGary’s back wasn’t getting better. It was getting worse.
On Friday, the announcement came: McGary had elected to undergo surgery on his back. Even worse, it included the word no team wants to hear about one of its key player’s potential return from injury: indefinite.
That word is fitting now: It describes Michigan’s 2013-14 season in the near term, and McGary’s career as a Wolverine in the long term.
Here’s what we know: McGary probably won’t be back this season. Michigan said it expected McGary to make a full recovery, but ESPN Insider Jeff Goodman’s sources said it was “highly unlikely” McGary would return in 2013-14.
McGary was a preseason All-American and the centerpiece of coach John Beilein’s plans this season. His presence was supposed to (at least partially) compensate for the loss of 2013 National Player of the Year Trey Burke and shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. Michigan would still be guard-oriented, sure; Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III would still be featured scorers in their own right, but McGary would lessen the damage of losing Burke. He would get the Wolverines easy baskets and mask many blemishes.
Now, Beilein’s team, already 7-4, loses much of its potential teeth. Michigan goes back to the combination of Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford that hardly set the world aflame before McGary’s arrival last season.
Frankly, that applies to much of McGary’s 2012-13 season, too. Michigan was good throughout, but it took McGary -- once the No. 2-ranked recruit in the Class of 2012 -- until March to push Morgan out of the starting lineup for good. Even in the final game of the regular season, McGary was still little more than a sub body Beilein used to irritate (and foul) Indiana star Cody Zeller. McGary finished that game with two points and four fouls.
But in March, he came alive. The run of dominance McGary unleashed justified every breathless scouting report of his early prep career: McGary steamrolled through South Dakota State, VCU, Kansas, Florida and Syracuse. In those five games, he shot 37-of-53, scored 80 points, grabbed 58 rebounds and generally morphed into the kind of player who deserved to take a good, hard look at the NBA draft. He did. He decided to return.
Now, McGary’s sophomore season is lost, and it is not unfair to ask the question: What if he leaves after this season anyway? It may be unlikely. No doubt, NBA scouts will want to see McGary and know he is healthy. Back issues make for a frightening investment. But there are plenty of precedents wherein obviously talented players demonstrated their talent in less-than-ideal sample sizes -- Kyrie Irving, anyone? -- before showing up to the draft combine healthy and impressive and hardly worse off for it.
What if McGary’s timeline works out that way? What if his family decides the risk of another year of possibly injured college basketball isn’t worth whatever lower draft slot he might have to take in bargain? Could McGary’s Michigan legacy end up being five brilliant NCAA tournament games and little more?
I don’t know, and neither does Michigan. Such are the perils in the absence of a timetable. How the Wolverines respond in this season, and what it means for them beyond it, is, like McGary’s post-surgery body, indefinite. We’ll just have to wait and see.