ATLANTA — Before he emerged as one of the nation's most coveted basketball prospects late in his high school career, Michigan big man Mitch McGary was known for something else around his neighborhood in Indiana.
Believe it or not, he was a skilled unicyclist.
Having watched classmate Spencer Stockwell delivering newspapers on a unicycle when they were kids, McGary became intrigued enough to ask his friend to let him give the contraption a try. His older brother eventually bought him a unicycle of his own for his 12th birthday, a gift McGary cherished so much that he spent all his free time for weeks perfecting his riding ability.
"I fell on my face plenty of times," McGary said. "Busted up my knees, elbows and hands, but it was all worth it finally achieving that goal."
McGary eventually he became proficient enough at his unusual hobby that he could jump curbs and even fill in for Stockwell on his paper route and ride the unicycle around their 1.4-mile neighborhood loop without falling. He said Friday on the eve of Michigan's Final Four matchup with Syracuse that he still owns three different types of unicycles, each varying heights and wheel widths.
That McGary can ride a unicycle has received as much attention the past few weeks as his late-season emergence as a formidable interior scoring threat. Not only did ESPN broadcast crew Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery mention it during a game earlier this season, a photo of a well-coiffed McGary riding his unicycle before a high school dance spread quickly via social media this week.
McGary's Michigan teammates have only seen pictures of him riding before because he doesn't do it during the season for fear of injury and he left all three of his unicycles at his parents' home. Senior guard Matt Vogrich said he's not at all surprised that the 6-foot-10, 250-pound big man can balance on one wheel because McGary is one of the most athletic and nimble players on the Michigan roster.
"It's funny that such a huge dude rides a unicycle, but if anybody would do it, it's Mitch," Vogrich said. "That's his personality. He's goofy and he's unbelievably skilled for someone who's as big as he is."
The same coordination that enables McGary to thrive on a unicycle also contributed to how highly regarded he was as a basketball prospect.
Thanks to his large frame, tireless work ethic and ability to run the floor and finish at the rim, McGary drew interest from many of the top programs in the nation while finishing his high school career at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire. McGary chose Michigan over Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina and Florida because he wanted to go somewhere that he could leave an imprint on a program rather than merely being a cog in a machine.
It looked as though it was going to take another year or two for McGary to truly make his mark, but the big man has blossomed during the last two months.
A role player who came off the bench behind forward Jordan Morgan the entire regular season, McGary played 20 or less minutes in Michigan's first 18 games and scored in double figures only twice during that span. He forced his way into the starting lineup at the start of the NCAA tournament and quickly gave Michigan the interior scoring threat it had lacked, averaging 17.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in four games.
One key to McGary's development has been a more nutritious, candy-free diet that has enabled him to slim down 20 pounds and play for longer stretches without tiring or fouling. Also helpful has been McGary's increased comfort level with the speed of the college game.
You're seeing a much more under-control Mitch McGary," Michigan assistant coach Bacari Alexander said. "I thought Mitch initially was a highly reactionary player. He was playing the game a bit too fast, but since then he has really slowed down nicely and he's playing with a purpose. He's out there getting rebounds and when he's finishing layups, he's doing it with proper footwork."
McGary might be the key player for Michigan against Syracuse on Saturday. He provides an interior target who can thrive in the middle of the two-three zone and his outlet passes can fuel the Wolverines' hopes of scoring before the Orange are even able to set up their defense.
Since McGary is so instrumental to Michigan, it's probably a good thing he won't ride his unicycles again until after the season is over. Still, when Michigan's NCAA tournament run ends, his teammates and coaches are very curious to see him ride.
"I'm eager even to this day for Mitch McGary to teach me how to get on a unicycle," Alexander said. "That will be a sight to see."