Rothstein: Wolverines freshmen catching up to college learning curve

Mitch McGary had been on his own at prep school for a year, but this type of discipline was still difficult. Having just arrived at Michigan as its most highly touted prospect in years, he started to eat.

The next thing he realized, he had put on the fabled “Freshman 15” before his first basketball season even started.

“As soon as I got on campus, I gained 15 pounds,” McGary said. “Lifted a lot and wasn’t eating really healthy. College was no joke at first, but once I got the hang of it, I still have weight I’m trying to get down.”

Around midseason, he started working more with Michigan strength coach Jon Sanderson to trim down his weight. He saw his endurance and minutes increase. This coincided with an injury to then-starting center Jordan Morgan, which meant more minutes for McGary whether he was prepared for them or not.

Eventually, he would be. Traces of his old game, the one that attracted coaches from both Michigan and Duke during his recruitment, returned.

He was one of the five Michigan freshmen coach John Beilein saw flashes from all season during practice. Sometimes even in games. Three of the freshmen — McGary, Glenn Robinson III and Spike Albrecht — played together during AAU basketball with SYF Players. Eventually, Beilein figured this type of output would manifest itself in games.

“There would be different points in a practice where they’d do something that would be extremely high level,” Beilein said. “We would see it happen and know that when it all comes together, that we could be a very good basketball team.

Keeping it together, as Michigan did during the first two games of its NCAA tournament run, will be a key piece for how much longer the Wolverines are playing. For Michigan to reach its first Final Four since the Fab Five era, and Beilein to make the first final weekend of his career, this new freshmen five needs to have a similar impact during the rest of the tournament.

Out of a possible 7,050 minutes this season, Michigan’s five freshmen have played 3,468 — a tad under 50 percent of all available minutes. The five freshmen have accounted for 43.1 percent of Michigan’s scoring.

It wasn’t always easy for them. McGary dealt with his weight from eating too many hamburgers, steaks and other meats. Caris LeVert was going to redshirt until Michigan’s coaches decided they needed him too much. Albrecht is playing behind Burke with merely a handful of minutes spelling the potential Wooden Award winner.

Nik Stauskas started off as the country’s top 3-point shooter over the first two months of the season, but as his shot started to miss, the rest of his game struggled.

“Going into the year, nobody expected anything from me, personally,” Stauskas said. “I came out and had a very strong first month or two and then hit a slump a little bit. It was disappointing for me because I’m used to shooting the ball really well and there was a period where I wasn’t shooting the ball well at all.

“So it was a learning experience for me, definitely.”

The fifth freshman, and one of three in Michigan’s starting lineup, Robinson, had the best transition if there was one. He started every game and his biggest adjustment was no longer being the focal point of an offense, instead having to find opportunities for shots instead of having plays drawn up just for him.

He saw fewer shots, so if his efficiency dropped, and so did his statistics, despite scoring in double figures in 20 of 35 games.

“I was making most of my shots,” Robinson said. “I’ve been taking five, six shots every game and was making four out of six, five out of six. Then all of a sudden my shot wasn’t falling as much, hitting two out of my six shots, three out of my six.

“People all of a sudden start saying I’m hitting a freshman slump, things like that. It’s hard to get the same looks in the Big Ten the whole season.”

Now, Michigan is out of the Big Ten and its freshmen appeared to find improvements in their games simultaneously. There were signs of this the past few weeks, Beilein said, of bits and pieces of everything starting to fit together.

It started to feel as if it was merely a question of when.

“I wasn’t worried whether it wouldn’t come this year because I knew it was going to come,” Beilein said. “You hear me say the word, ‘process.’ If it didn’t come this year, I knew it was going to come in the future.

“Every person wants it to happen as soon as it can. It was a good time to play so well but I think the best is yet to come for them.”

The best, for Beilein and Michigan, could come sooner than expected. On Friday, against Kansas, the Wolverines will receive their first Sweet 16 shot since 1994, when four of the five Fab Five were juniors and Chris Webber was an NBA rookie.

The three freshmen starters are finding new parts of their game. Robinson has rediscovered his shot and his aggressiveness. A trimmed-down McGary moved into the starting lineup; his 21 points and 14 rebounds in a win over VCU in the round of 32 were both career highs. Stauskas is understanding the nuance and importance of defense after not having to worry about it much in high school.

Michigan’s youngest players continue to discover their games on the biggest stage in their sport. Their growth may well determine the Wolverines’ NCAA tournament fortunes.

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