When Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III led Michigan to a narrow win over Stanford Saturday in Brooklyn, the Wolverines proved they can defeat a quality opponent without Mitch McGary to anchor the frontcourt.
On Friday, Michigan learned it will probably have to repeat that feat regularly to contend in the Big Ten and return to the NCAA tournament.
Michigan announced Friday that McGary has decided to have surgery on performed on his lower back and could be sidelined the rest of the season. The preseason All-American missed all of Michigan's preseason practices and its first two games of the season due to lingering back issues, then sat out the Stanford game after experiencing another flare-up.
"I thought that everything was proceeding in the right direction until the last two weeks," McGary said in a statement. "I have consulted with my family, my coaches and our doctors and decided the best option now is to have surgery. This was a difficult decision to make because I want to be out there with my teammates. At the same time, I need to be healthy to give everything I can on the court and help my team."
There's no sugarcoating how big a loss it would be for Michigan if McGary cannot play again this season. When healthy, he 6-foot-10 former five-star recruit is one of the nation's elite interior scorers and his presence on the floor balances the Wolverines' otherwise perimeter-heavy attack.
During Michigan's run to the national title game last March, McGary averaged better than 14 points and 10 rebounds and emerged as one of the NCAA tournament's breakout stars. Lower back pain and sub-par conditioning because of his inability to practice consistently contributed to his averages dipping to 9.5 points and 8.3 rebounds in eight games this season.
Had McGary turned pro after the NCAA tournament last spring, there was a chance he could have gone in the lottery in last June's NBA draft. Now he may have to return to Michigan for his junior season to attempt to prove to NBA scouts that his back problems won't be a longterm issue.
Reporters in Ann Arbor asked McGary on Friday if he had any regrets about returning to school in light of his back injury. He insisted he didn't, though that's difficult to believe considering the ramifications for his draft stock if this proves to be an injury he can't fully shake.
McGary chose not to reveal the specific nature of his back injury during Friday's press conference. He could have kept trying to play through the pain, but he said he feared exacerbating the injury further.
"I'd be in a lot of pain," he told reporters in Ann Arbor. "There would be too much stress on my body and I didn't want to harm it anymore."