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ATLANTA – North Carolina and Duke were after him. So were Kentucky and Florida. Mitch McGary’s size, mobility and skill level made him one of the nation’s most coveted recruits, the kind of player who could ensure the mighty would remain mighty or, if he so chose, bring legitimate national championship hopes to a program residing on the fringes of the elite.

Michigan was a program on the periphery but one undeterred by the strength and status its opponents brought to the recruiting war. The Wolverines already had a commitment for this season from Glenn Robinson III, McGary’s AAU teammate. The program had been making steady progress under the guidance of coach John Beilein. They told McGary he could play a significant role at Michigan right from the get-go so long as he fought for it. There were no promises of extending playing time, no guarantees that he’d become the center of attention.

“During the recruiting process, I had other big-time schools that offered,” McGary said. “I just felt Coach Beilein and his staff, I respected them a lot. They stayed true to me. They were real classy with it. They didn’t give me the normal car salesman pitch like every other coach did. They told me what I wanted to hear, told me I have to earn everything when I get there.”

Landing McGary changed the mind-set within the coaching staff. If this worked out the way they envisioned, the Wolverines would transform into instant title contenders.

Suddenly they focused on recruiting a point guard to back up Trey Burke in case Burke was sidelined by injury. What a shame it would be to squander a season for which they had such high expectations simply because they stuck to their plan of holding off on recruiting a point guard until the following year. They were ready to take their shot at bringing Michigan basketball back to the forefront.

It’s all fallen into place. The 6-foot-10, 250-pounder lived up to his nickname “Monster” in guiding Michigan into tonight’s national championship game against Louisville. Burke was named the national player of the year and validated his selection against Kansas but otherwise McGary’s been the one leading the charge.

“Everybody sort of talks about Trey Burke,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino. “He [McGary] has really gotten better to the point where he’s one of the premiere guys in the country right now. He’s always been hard-nosed, tough.”

Beilein brought McGary along slowly this freshman season. He didn’t start right out of the gate. His first 20-minute game didn’t come until Jan. 3, and he’s averaged fewer than 20 minutes per game. The progress was steady but lacked any wow factor. But then McGary, a Chesterton, Ind., native, who played at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, began to digress. An injury to junior Jordan Morgan increased McGary’s playing time but his production suffered. He committed 12 turnovers with just three assists in a span of six Big Ten games, a ghastly ratio that was undermining Beilein’s fluid offense predicated on ball movement.

“That’s a deal-breaker with coach Beilein,” assistant coach Jeff Meyer said. “You don’t turn the ball over.”

McGary steadied, returned to his earlier form, but not until the NCAA Tournament did he begin to emerge as one of the nation’s more accomplished big men. He pulled down 14 rebounds in a third-round victory over VCU. He outplayed Kansas’ 7-footer in the Sweet Sixteen, going off for 25 points and another 14 boards as Michigan rallied to win in overtime. He moved up high in the offensive set Saturday night and became the conductor against a Syracuse zone that had stymied all others. McGary came up with 10 points and, more importantly, a career-high six assists.

“I consider myself a good passer,” McGary said as Saturday turned to Sunday following the Syracuse game. “Sometimes too crazy for Coach Beilein.”

There was never a problem in getting the most out of McGary. He dived for loose balls from the opening day of practice. The challenge was in getting him to harness his enthusiasm and mesh it with an offense reliant upon sound thought and precise action.

“The fire’s always been burning,” Beilein said. “There’s always been something there. He’s made these incremental steps all year long. Sometimes you look at him and there’s really some brilliant things he does in there, then there’s other times you can see he has a lot to learn.

“He embraces all that. That’s what has made it most impressive. But the best is yet to come. He continues to practice hard. He continues to study the game. He’s got, as I’ve said several times, a high ceiling to his overall game. By the way, his personality and leadership is terrific.”

Hamburg’s Blake McLimans is in his fourth year with the Wolverines. He seldom plays but he has a handle on what’s required to succeed in Beilein’s system. McGary had all the tools – the footwork, the passing skills, an inside-out game. But for Michigan to realize its potential its precocious freshman had to balance his emotions without compromising his high energy level.

“He could definitely get overexcited,” McLimans said. “As you can see there’s some games he’ll get very, very emotional. I don’t really see how that’s a bad thing. He has teammates like us who will be like, ‘OK, Mitch, we’re really excited just focusing on the game,’ and once we say that he’s good. But bringing that enthusiasm can really bring us up if we’re having a bad part of the game. He’s there to get us going again and it can really spark our team and I think it’s really great for him to do.”

McGary will be integral to Michigan’s chances tonight. He can help thwart Louisville’s pressing defense with his ball-handling and mobility, as he did against VCU. He’s the Wolverines’ foremost inside scoring option, a 60-percent shooter the Cardinals have to mark at all times. And the attention McGary receives feeds into his superb court vision and passing, qualities that punished Syracuse. The learning process has taken hold.

“We have a saying, ‘Let’s be good before you’re great,’ ” Beilein said. “He’s made a good team a great team, because he’s played that way.”

email: bdicesare@buffnews.com