Sour ending won't spoil the legacies of Michigan basketball captains Zack Novak and Stu Douglass
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The moment was almost surreal.
Almost 10 minutes after their final games in a Michigan basketball uniform, Zack Novak and Stu Douglass emerged from the Wolverine locker room one last time — and neither one of them quite knew what to do.
Douglass, eyes puffy and red from the tears that welled inside them moments earlier, and Novak, wearing an emblematic bruise on his cheek and bump across the bridge of his nose, walked a lonely hallway inside the bowels of Bridgestone Arena to meet with the media one final time.
"I don't know," Douglass said in a somber tone. "I just didn't think this would happen today."
With that, Novak and Douglass were gone.
The two senior captains, who combined to play 270 games, start 197 games and log 8,264 minutes during a four-year period that saw the Michigan basketball program go from a Big Ten bottom-feeder to league champions, saw everything end far earlier than they had anticipated.
A day earlier, Douglass had said an early exit in this tournament would be "crushing," something that would probably linger on with him forever.
Novak wasn't as firm, but said the finality of everything was beginning to creep up on him, even though he tried his best to run away from it.
Friday, against a Mid-American Conference team, the end finally caught up with Novak and Douglass.
It was in no way what most believed their final moment at Michigan to be like, but there it was.
Unorthodox, odd and unexpected.
Just like their Wolverine careers.
"I guess it's the one blemish in our career, we never got to a Sweet 16," Novak said after a long pause. "But coming in, personally, I was the fat kid from Indiana.
"And (we were) able to make three NCAA Tournaments, win the Big Ten in a year when it was the best conference in the country and win a lot of games. You have to keep things in perspective."
Douglass and Novak explained a wide array of emotions following Friday's upset loss. Disbelief, anger, frustration, sadness.
But regret never was said.
Sure, they'll look back on their final game and wonder what might have been. Novak was 1-for-6 from the floor and almost fouled out. Douglass went 2-for-7 and missed a pair of crucial layups during two Wolverine comeback attempts.
It was far from their finest hour.
But for two guys that weren't really supposed to be here anyway, it wasn't all bad.
"They put this on their back and they turned it around," Michigan sophomore Jordan Morgan said of his senior leaders. "They didn't score every point, but they inspired all of us, motivated all of us, pushed all of us to be as good as we can."
Their stories, parallel in nature, are well-documented.
Two lightly recruited kids from Indiana, who couldn't sign a letter of intent to play at Michigan fast enough, spend four years proving people wrong and becoming unlikely heroes for a program that desperately needed new life.
For John Beilein, they were two last-minute recruits who ended up as once-in-a-lifetime leaders.
A story most couldn't make up if they tried.
"They've been the heart and soul of this team for four years," he said. "Through so many good times and certainly some low roads at times."
They didn't have many signature individual moments at Michigan. Neither averaged double figures during one single season. Both consistently played out of position and spent time deferring to others.
In the end, a freshman (Trey Burke) and a sophomore (Tim Hardaway Jr.) had fully passed them as go-to performers.
They never made it beyond the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and they even lost on senior night.
But to their teammates, none of that matters. They'll be impossible to forget, no matter the path Michigan heads down next.
"They're going to leave a great legacy here," Hardaway said.
To their peers, they were leaders; to their coach, they were sons; and to the program, they were indeed saviors.
Novak and Douglass never got their Cinderella ending.
But it doesn't matter. They spent most of their career living in a fairy tale anyway.
Though it ended bitterly, their time in Ann Arbor won't be remembered as such.
"I know I won't have any regrets," Novak said. "I went out there every time and played my ass off."
Zack Novak and Stu Douglass.
Unique, strange and unprecedented. Sometimes awkward and sometimes inspiring.
And forever unforgettable.
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