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Posted on Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

Underdogs forever: Zack Novak, Stu Douglass at core of Michigan basketball resurgence

By Nick Baumgardner

Zack Novak and Stu Douglass heard every word.

As two unheralded Indiana high school basketball recruits who struggled to earn any offer, let alone a look from a Big Ten Conference team, Novak and Douglass showed up at Michigan in 2008 with plenty of questions.

Who are these guys?

Is Michigan serious?

Did anyone else even want these two?

“We heard it,” Novak recalls. “How we sucked and how Michigan basketball coming back is a joke because they’ve got two guys they just picked up at the YMCA.”

It’d been more than a decade since the Michigan basketball program had seen an NCAA Tournament, and John Beilein’s first season on campus the year before came with 10 victories and 22 losses.

Long story short, the Wolverines were in need of a few saviors.

But these guys? A 6-foot-4 lefty who moonlighted as a power forward and a floppy-haired shooting guard with a baby face and a mid-major build?


"I still hear it,” Douglass said. “People think I don't belong here. That's fine.

“I know what I’ve done, and I know what Zack’s done.”

The two kids from the YMCA, the guys who didn’t belong and had no business playing in the Big Ten, helped take Michigan basketball off life support and turn it into a perennial NCAA Tournament contender.


Following the same path

It started inside a gym. Where, exactly, is up for debate.

Novak thinks it might have been at Notre Dame, Douglass is rather certain it was somewhere along the Indiana AAU circuit.

Though, it could’ve happened earlier, as Novak said he may have met Douglass for the first time during middle school.

“I could’ve played him in fifth grade,” he said. “We don’t know.”

But when and where these two met doesn’t really matter. Neither do the first impressions they made upon one another.

They were both headed in the same direction, whether they knew it or not.


Michigan coach John Beilein, right, on recruiting Stu Douglass, left, and Zack Novak: “We just wanted two solid kids we could count on. Kids that ran through the doors at Michigan because they wanted to play in the Big Ten.”

Chris Asadian |

And, at the time, the destination Novak and Douglass were both tracking toward was anything but glitzy.

Approaching the end of his prep career at Carmel High School, Douglass had his heart set on Colorado. Until, that is, Colorado changed its mind.

“They pulled (their offer), and I was devastated,” Douglass said. “After that, I didn't have any expectations.

“IU, Purdue and Notre Dame pulled all their interest, after that, I lost any expectations I had of my college dreams or career.”

Meantime, Novak was in an even more desperate situation. Douglass had an offer pulled, but at least there was interest to begin with.

Novak could score, but he was buried on the bench of a talented AAU squad in the summer and starring at small-town Chesterton High School in the winter -- not an ideal situation for exposure.

“I came very close to probably not even playing college basketball at all,” Novak said.

Novak and Douglass eventually crossed paths with Beilein. And, luckily for them, he wasn’t worried about star-ratings, offer lists or pro potential. He didn’t have time for that.

Beilein was tasked with rebuilding a program that had been buried under more than a decade of losing, disappointment and shame.

He didn’t need McDonald’s All-Americans. He needed workers. Workers who appreciated a chance to compete in the Big Ten.

“We just wanted two solid kids we could count on,” Beilein said. “Kids that ran through the doors at Michigan because they wanted to play in the Big Ten.”

Since that time, Michigan has put together three 20-victory seasons, Novak has scored more than 1,000 career points, Douglass has become one of the school’s most prolific 3-point shooters and together they’ve re-written the book on leadership when it comes to Wolverine basketball.

Four years later, it’s safe to say Beilein found what he was looking for.


Starting over again

Novak shoulders most of the blame, and Douglass calls it the most disappointing event of his basketball career.

After making a surprising run to the NCAA Tournament as freshmen in 2008-09, the school’s first trip in more than a decade, Michigan entered the 2009-10 season with lofty expectations.

The team brought back leading scorers Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims, Novak and Douglass were experienced sophomores and all signs pointed to a corner-turning point for the Michigan program.

What happened was anything but.

The Wolverines fell flat. Michigan began the year as the No. 15 team in America. It ended the season with just 15 victories.

“I've got to take some of the heat on that,” said Novak, who served as a team captain despite being just a sophomore. “I was the captain of that team and I wasn't ready to handle that fully.


Michigan senior captains Zack Novak, left, and Stu Douglass hanging out during last season's media day.

AP Photo

“It's tough.”

The tournament run they enjoyed as freshmen was cast off as a fluke. After helping breathe life back into a program that sat dormant for so long, Novak and Douglass were going to have to start all over again.

"Zack and I's goals were to just help get everybody back to (an NCAA Tournament level),” Douglass said. “Never let that attitude (from 2009-10), the complacency, the comfort of just thinking we're good, slip back into our minds.

“If it ever creeps up, we've tried to make sure that doesn't get anywhere near (the team).”

Two years later, both have officially been successful in that mission.

Michigan entered the week rated as the 11th-best team in America, holding an RPI in the top 15 with a shot at a Big Ten regular-season title in reach and a lock on a third NCAA Tournament bid in four years.

Throughout the rebuilding process, Beilein has harped on the concept of culture. A culture of winning, and a culture of positive attitude.

Above the lockers inside the new $23.2 million William Davidson Player Development Center, Beilein has placed permanent reminders of the program’s core values.

Integrity. Passion. Appreciation. Diligence.

Read between the lines and it may as well say: “Just do what Zack and Stu do.”

Should everything go as planned this season, Douglass and Novak will have been to three NCAA Tournaments in four years: Diligence.

Novak is a finalist for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award, and Douglass has twice received Michigan’s Travis Conlan Sportsmanship Award: Integrity.

Douglass has never missed a game in four years, 130 straight and counting, and Novak is one of just two three-time captains in the program’s history: Passion.

As for appreciation? Well, isn’t that one obvious?

“I felt just lucky to even be here,” Novak said. “The fact that I went from day one of my senior year with no offers to ending up at Michigan, I thought, deep down, I had already topped out where I was going to end up (as a prep player).

"I thought I'd be able to contribute and have a good career, but to do some of the things we've done and to be a part of that isn't really what I expected."

Douglass, naturally, agreed. He explained that he and Novak will be forever linked by their work to prove every other coach, school and fan in the Big Ten wrong.

“To come in with such similarities and to exceed people's expectations -- together, simultaneously -- and take this program to where it hasn't been in so many years, together (is great),” Douglass said. “We've looked at each other a couple times this year and no words need to be spoken.

"You really can't put it into words. It's an unspoken acknowledgment."


Coming to an end

When Beilein coached his son, Patrick, at West Virginia, he went through a ritual before every game of his senior season.

It was his way of remembering that precious time was running thin.

“I used to put these marbles in a jar and take them out every day,” he said. “I knew (I was running out of time) to coach that group, in particular, my son.

“It’s almost that type of feeling right now.”

No one has to remind Novak or Douglass about the final few grains of sand that are slipping through their college basketball hourglass.


Zack Novak: "I wasn't a huge Michigan fan growing up, but I guess it's safe to say I am now."

Melanie Maxwell |

But they do anyway.

“Tim (Hardaway Jr.) will say in the tunnel after practice, ‘Man, you’ve only got two more games here,’“ Douglass said prior to Michigan’s victory against Ohio State last Saturday. “And I’ll be like, ‘Tim, shut up, I know. Relax.’

“It’s hitting me.”

Novak and Douglass, the unlikeliest of successful duos, will play their final home game Saturday when the 11th-ranked Wolverines host Purdue (6 p.m. BTN).

They’ve spent four years surprising, overcoming and winning side-by-side.

"I think I've never taken it for granted,” Novak said of his time in Ann Arbor. “I've realized that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and my whole life growing up, this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to play in the Big Ten. Wherever that was.

"I wasn't a huge Michigan fan growing up, but I guess it's safe to say I am now."

In the beginning, no one wanted them.

In the middle, plenty mocked them.

In the end, few will forget them.

“I'm sure people still look at us, and especially if we get into an NCAA Tournament, and other teams will be like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ “ Novak said. “ ‘Look at these guys.’

“But, it's worked out."

Not bad for two kids from the YMCA.

Nick Baumgardner covers Michigan basketball for He can be reached at 734-623-2514, by email at and followed on Twitter @nickbaumgardner.


tom Bacon

Fri, Feb 24, 2012 : midnight

Zac and Stu are two of my favorite Michigan players of all time. Remember those guys heaving 3 pointers at the basket as freshman with few going in. Now as seniors, they are the best example of University of Michigan Athletes! Now, in OT against NW, they confidently put the game away with clutch 3's when it was on the line. Best of Luck to you both and Stu, I am sure glad you didn't go to Harvard! A great example for young players and students in general about work ethic and determination!! You guys ROCK!!!


Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 10:46 p.m.

Thanks for everything you've done for the University of Michigan, Zack and Stu. This season won't even be the best memory or what I'm most thankful for when it comes to these two. What I'll always remember is the 2008-2009 season they gave us. After/while sitting through the most horrible, unbelievable college football season, these guys sunk enough 3-pters to get us wins over top 5 Duke, top 5 UCLA and our first NCAA Tournament in a long time. They immediately restored a lot of the pride Michigan lost that 2008 football season, and I'll never forget it. It was amazing.


Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 9:56 p.m.

"Yes son, you too can be white, of average talent, and play basketball at UM someday"....


Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 10:46 p.m.

Yeah, that sounds about like Minnesota, so you're right. ;)


Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 4:58 p.m.

These guys are amazing! love them both! You have served yourselves well, and represented the University with class and intelligence. Thanx!


Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 4:57 p.m.

More than 3 pointers, more than defense, more than key takeaways. These 2 just demonstrate leadership. With heart, effort, and attitude like these guys have shown (and demanded of the team), it is no wonder that Michigan is back on the winning track. I have repeatedly praised Novak and hope that he ends up as a coach. I don't see Stu so much as a coach, but he has shown such tremendous will to win and being in the right place all the time--I wish both of these guys nothing but the best and will miss them a lot. (My boys absolutely love watching these 2, and i always try to teach them how to play the game by Novak and Stu type plays). Regarding B10 type players--look who has been in the final 4 recently--Butler (from their home state), George Mason, VCU. You don't have to be B10 to succeed, and these guys are proof that talent plus effort > "B10" "talent".


Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 2:51 p.m.

What a great article! Zack reminds me so much of a former Michigan basketball player Steve Grote. There is no doubt in my mind that Zach and Stu are the heart and soul of this team and they will be truly missed next year. What great role models for the young fans that watch Michigan basketball. It would be great to get a Big Ten Championship but to see where Michigan basketball was and where it is now is a great accomplishment.

Susie Q

Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 11:28 p.m.

I remember Steve Grote, too. He was a hard worker and a tough hustler, but he sure could whine whenever he got a foul. He always looked shocked, yes SHOCKED, that he'd been called for a foul.


Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 1:21 p.m.

AHHHRRRGG! MSU came SO close to losing last night at Minnesota. Would have opened the door for our split B1G championship. I would love to see these two seniors go out on top.


Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 1:15 p.m.

Article subject matter is good, NIck, but your headline once again reeks of homer-ism. Last week it was "Michigan basketball controls its own destiny in Big Ten". They did not, they were one game back and didn't have any upcoming games with the first place team. Then it was "for the most part". Also not true. Now "resurgence"? A resurgence would indicate that the Michigan basketball team has done something more than just finishing in the top half of the Big Ten and losing in the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament. They have not.


Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 4:02 p.m.

Klondike is melting! We read so we can get the homer perspective. Let Drew Sharp and the rest of the Detroit ink stained wretch's tear us down. GO BLUE!


Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 3:01 p.m.

FWIW, the writers very rarely actually get to make their own headlines. Odds are your beef is with somebody else. Don't ask me why, but that's how they do it. As for your definition of reurgence... well, that's yours. Most of the rest of us appreciate being nationally ranked, relevant, and watching good basketball.


Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 2:21 p.m.

You're harshing our buzz, man....


Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 1:11 p.m.

As a long time Michigan Basketball season ticket holder, I knew the first year that Zack and Stu played here that they were something special. Zack is diligent, intense and goal oriented. Stu has a cool demeanor and puts the team first, always. Thank you captains, we will miss you. Your contribution to Michigan Basketball will not be forgotten.


Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 12:49 p.m.

I think Belein deserves a ton of credit for these two as well. He is so good at evaluating talent, so good at developing and getting great coaches around him, Bacari is one of the top assistants in the country. And I still can't believe that these two are two of the best defenders in the big ten. Stu is just a lock down defender and Novak is up on the records for the most 3-pointers made. Great story....


Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 12:50 p.m.

Beilein (sorry)


Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 12:45 p.m.

What an amazing article and a tribute to these two players. With an 11yr old who idolizes both Novak and Douglass, we will be in the stands cheering them on Saturday night. This article is a reminder to my son, or anyone for that matter, that you can have passion for something, work hard, never give up on that dream and make it happen even when things aren't going the way you planned. These are two players that would make any team proud!


Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 12:28 p.m.

They give hope to all us short white guys!


Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 11:37 a.m.

thanks, nick-----it needed to be written. as someone old enough to have watched cazzie play in A2, i can honestly say that i've never admired any athletes at M more than these two. they HAVE resurrected the program. i've felt for a long time that their pictures (in lieu of a plaque honoring them) needs to adorn the new davidson building. they came when almost nobody would-----they have brought great honor to their families, their university, and to themselves. HOWEVER, at the end of the purdue game on saturday i'd like to see somebody with zack and a tape measure------i have never believed he reaches 6'4-----in heart, obviously-----but not in actual height.