Mutka: Michigan basketball roomies on same wave length
By John Mutka Post-Tribune senior correspondent firstname.lastname@example.org November 10, 2013 5:20PM
Updated: December 12, 2013 6:28AM
Being roommates at Michigan and former AAU teammates Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III established an undeniable comfort zone in their freshman year with the NCAA runner-up.
“We’ve been best friends for a while,” said McGary, who came out of Chesterton by way of Brewster Academy to earn Final Four all-tournament honors. “Whenever he’s in a bad mood I know it. We have that telepathy. We lean on each other pretty heavily.”
That’s a mind-boggling claim since the Lake Central grad seldom displays much emotion on or off the court.
“I don’t know if he can read my mind,” said Robinson with a trace of a smile. “I’m real calm, but have known Mitch for a long time.”
What’s on their collective mind is obvious. The preseason all-Big Ten picks are itching for a return trip to the Final Four. Last year they propelled the Wolverines to a school record 31 victories and NCAA runner-up honors.
Playing out of position, the 6-6 Robinson started every game, averaging 11 points and 5.4 rebounds to earn a spot on Kyle Macy’s Freshman All-American team.
“I’d been a No. 3 all my life until last year,” Robinson admits. “It’s more natural for me, but I played No. 4 because it was best for the team.”
Robinson ranked second to McGary’s league-leading .598 field goal percentage, but coach John Beilein appreciated the intangibles he contributed, something box scores never reveal.
“You watch him on the wing and you might think he’s not doing much,” said the man who guided Michigan to its first title game appearance in 20 years, “but he’s keeping defenses occupied. He opened up the floor for Trey (Burke) and Tim (Hardaway Jr.)”
Beilein compared it to a football coach using a great wide receiver as a decoy. “You keep running him long and never throw to him, but he’s keeping defenses occupied.”
McGary needed more time to showcase his talents. Though receiving only eight starts, the 6-10, 255-pound freshman still led the Wolverines in rebounds and stepped into the postseason spotlight.
Belatedly running the floor with barely controlled exuberance, he exploded with 21 points and 14 rebounds against VCU and 25 points and 14 boards against Kansas in the Big Dance.
Now that Burke (Jazz) and Hardaway (Knicks) have departed, Michigan must diversify to fill 80 vacant minutes and 30 to 40 shots. That means more opportunities for Robinson.
“Robby will have a huge role and I think his defense could impact us even more than his scoring,” Beilein said.
Look for McGary to emerge as one of the premier rebounders in Division I, assuming early back problems don’t become a major issue. He could conceivably be sidelined until conference play begins.
“He’s not just a banger,” Beilein insisted at the Big Ten basketball media day. “He’s a great rebounder and a very skilled player.”
McGary considers himself smart enough to emulate former Chesterton teammate Zack Novak, who preceded him as a three-time captain at Michigan.
“I learned a lot from Zack,” said the aspiring team captain. “We talk a couple of times a week and are pretty close. Last year we had to step back a little (for Burke and Hardaway), but we’ll be more team oriented.”
In spite of their sensational emergence, the Wolverines didn’t receive much love in the preseason poll. State rival Michigan State and Ohio State were picked ahead of them.
That doesn’t sit well with McGary, who did consider turning pro.
“I thought about leaving,” he concedes, “but I only cracked the glass. Now I’m trying to break through it.”
NBA futures might be a distraction, but the Wolverines have tried to put it on the back burner. They banned such talk in the locker room.
“We’re trying to block that out,” McGary said, “but the media keeps bringing it up.”
Add Crown Point’s Spike Albrecht to Michigan’s equation and it’s enough to make a nosey newsy from Northwest Indiana salivate. His vital tournament contributions may not translate into a starting role, but Beilein is favorably disposed to bestowing more minutes.
“Spike understands the college game much better than he did last year,” Beilein said. “He had a terrific freshman year (backing up Burke) even though he was playing just two, three, maybe five minutes a game.”
Pitching gives Mac a fighting chance: On Lloyd McClendon’s first managerial tour of duty, the cards were stacked against him. As an apologist for Pittsburgh from 2001-05, he persevered for nearly five years, but the miserly Pirates never threatened to break even.
So, how will managing Seattle’s doormats be any different for McClendon, who spent the last seven years as Detroit’s hitting coach before Brad Ausmus beat him out for Jim Leyland’s job?
The lowly Mariners have spun through eight managers since successive 93-game winners in 2002-03 and haven’t qualified for the playoffs in 12 years. Barring an about-face, they’re headed for their fifth straight losing season.
Fortunately, Big Mac might have enough ammunition to win an arms race in the American League West. Talented pitchers like Felix Hernandez (12-10, 3.04 ERA) and Hisashi Iwakuma (14-6, 2.66 ERA) never topped his rotation at Pittsburgh.
Hernandez has won at least 12 games in seven of the last eight seasons and collected the Cy Young Award in 2010 with a 13-12 record, including 30 quality starts, on the Mariners’ second 101-game loser in six years.
Iwakuma, like Hernandez, was a 200-inning eater who might have pressed Detroit’s Max Scherzer for Cy Young honors if the offense hadn’t gone sleepless in Seattle. In five no-decisions the Japanese import didn’t give up an earned run.
Leyland’s association with McClendon dates back to the Gary native’s major league career in the 1990s. Here’s a glimpse of what Leyland told the Seattle press about his protege:
“Lloyd is one of those special guys. He’s ready ... I think you guys are going to fall in love with him.”
Leyland referred to McClendon and coach Gene Lamont as his sounding board over the last eight years.
“If you saw our dugout it was myself and Gene and Lloyd side by side most of the time. I leaned on both those guys a lot.”
Leyland said he believed McClendon would replace him until the inexperienced Ausmus “knocked their socks off” in his interview.
“Legendary Lloyd” received a warm reception from the media, which even ran a team picture of the 1971 Gary team he starred for in the Little League World Series.
To refresh your memory, he was intentionally walked in every at-bat after hitting four home runs, including a three-run shot against Taiwan in the title game.