LINCOLN — Michigan preseason All-American Mitch McGary underwent season-ending back surgery Tuesday, complete with a photo posted to Instagram from the pre-operating room.
So why is Wolverines coach John Beilein still smiling?
Clarity. Let’s explain.
The 6-foot-10, 255-pound McGary, who used last spring’s NCAA tournament as a launch pad into the NBA’s first-round draft list, has been slowed since July with recurring back trouble.
The sophomore has been in and out of the lineup, playing in eight games and averaging 9.5 points and 8.3 rebounds — decent, but short of the numbers he posted in Michigan’s run to the national championship game.
“He’s a tremendous player,” Beilein said by phone from Ann Arbor, Mich. “He showed signs this summer in our workouts — and we saw last March — of the ability to dominate games. Losing him is bad news.”
But it’s not the end of the world for Michigan (10-4, 2-0), which plays Nebraska (8-6, 0-2) on Thursday night at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
“At least we know he is out, and now we can go forward,” Beilein said. “We had two plans going all fall, and we weren’t great in either one of them because we didn’t know which one to emphasize.”
The Wolverines, whose 6-4 start included losses to three top-10 teams (Iowa State, Duke, Arizona), have won four in a row with a retooled rotation, including Big Ten games against Minnesota and Northwestern.
“Early-season wins are important, though they don’t define your season,” Beilein said. “But we’re glad we could get out of the gate 2-0.”
Michigan’s roster is hardly bankrupt, even with McGary out and point guard Trey Burke having left early for the NBA.
Sophomore guard Nik Stauskas averages 17.8 points a game. Sophomore wing Glenn Robinson III, projected last spring as a first-round NBA pick, is at 13.4 points and 4.6 rebounds. And true freshman guard Zak Irvin, the 2013 Mr. Basketball from Indiana, is at 7.9 points and shooting 42 percent on 3-pointers.
The two splitting McGary’s minutes — 6-10, 250-pound junior Jon Horford and 6-8, 250-pound senior Jordan Morgan — have combined for 16 points and 13.5 rebounds the past two games.
“There’s a lot of talk about losing Mitch McGary,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said. “And I don’t mean to dismiss it. You lose a sizable guy with a huge skill set.
“But as a team, they still have enough weapons. They shoot the 3 incredibly well and they don’t turn the ball over. It reminds me of trying to play Creighton.”
Nebraska is 7-0 in its new arena. The challenge to remain unbeaten there will be stiff.
“Our fans have been amazing,” Miles said. “They show up, they are loud and proud, and we’re going to need them against Michigan.”