It was obvious at the beginning what Zack Novak and Stu Douglass were not.
They were not highly recruited. Neither was big, fast, or particularly athletic for his position. They were not going to play in the NBA.
They were parts.
In 2008, that was OK with Michigan’s new basketball coach, John Beilein, who had a history of building basketball programs where the sum was much greater than the parts. It was not OK with a certain segment of the Michigan fan base, whose vision of how a basketball program should be built was forged by the Fab Five.
The sum didn’t need to be greater than the parts when Michigan had Jalen Rose and Chris Webber. For fans who remembered Rose, Webber, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson, and Jimmy King leading Michigan to the NCAA title game as freshmen—and then again as sophomores—it was hard to think about anything but individual talent. It was also easy to forget the ensuing NCAA investigation that forced Michigan to erase the Fab Five years from the record books.
Those fans at least understood Tommy Amaker, the guy Beilein replaced. Amaker ultimately failed, but early in his tenure he signed a top-rated recruiting class headlined by McDonald’s All-American Daniel Horton. It wasn’t quite the Fab Five, but it was the Fab Five model. You bring in enough good players, and good things would eventually happen. In theory.
In practice, Amaker’s teams never reached the NCAA tournament, and after six seasons he was fired. In the fall of 2008, as Beilein started his second season, his prospects didn’t look much better: he was coming off a 10–22 record, and his best recruits were Douglass and Novak—two kids from Indiana that nobody else in the Big Ten wanted.
There was open grumbling, not just about the new coach’s inability to find the next Rose or Webber, but at his seeming indifference to the need. Michigan State fans joked that Beilein was remaking Hoosiers rather than remaking a Big Ten program.
Just three years later, Michigan is again a Top 25 team—and Novak and Douglass are its emotional hubs. They have been the two biggest on-court constants as the Wolverines returned to the NCAA Tournament and national relevance. They are still not NBA prospects, but more and more they are molding teammates with that potential.
And, no, they will never be Rose and Webber. But however this season turns out, it’s already obvious what Novak and Douglass are: the two kids who proved that Michigan basketball doesn’t need the Fab Five to still matter.
Novak is curly haired with an expressive face, sometimes showing concentration, sometimes frustration, but rarely neutral. At Chesterton High, in the Indiana’s northwest corner, he was a four-time basketball MVP and broke the school’s all-time scoring record by more than 500 points. Douglass, quiet and small for a basketball player, is from Carmel, a suburb of Indianapolis. Like Novak, he helped lead his team to a conference title his senior year.
By Big Ten standards, though, both were limited players, something their other college options reflected. The left-handed Novak, truly a coveted prospect in baseball, was considering leveraging a baseball offer at Indiana into a chance to walk onto the IU basketball team. Douglass was hoping for another Big Ten offer, but probably would have ended up at Harvard, where—ironically enough—Amaker was courting him. But Harvard, for all its academic cachet, does not offer basketball scholarships, and has never won an Ivy League title.
Three-point shooting was each player’s only true Big Ten–level skill. At six-foot-four Novak was between positions—too big and slow to play on the wing, too small to bang inside. He looked soft, maybe even a little chubby, as a freshman. Douglass was listed at six-three, 170 pounds, and seemed even smaller. He had a point guard’s body, but lacked a point guard’s ball-handling skills.
But Michigan was starved for shooting—and warm bodies. The freshmen from Indiana started a combined forty-five games. Together they hit more than 100 three-pointers as the Wolverines went 21–14, beating Duke in December and earning Michigan’s first non-vacated NCAA Tournament bid since 1995.
They brought more to the team than three-pointers. Douglass and Novak were culture recruits, contributing skills that went beyond shots and rebounds. Having taken three different Division I programs to the NCAA Tournament prior to coming to Michigan, Beilein knew the value of intangibles like work ethic and commitment.
“They play with a little chip on their shoulder, because they were not Big Ten recruits,” the coach explains. “We needed a couple of guys who were just going to be team-first all the way, who could shoot the ball, but who were going to be extremely efficient as student athletes.” The example set by Douglass and Novak, he says, “really helped us to help bring other kids along who maybe didn’t come in with that package.”
The package means basketball things, like studying film, being committed to the weight program, and knowing Beilein’s complex offensive and defensive sets cold. It also means not missing class or study halls and being on time.
On some level, it simply means wanting to be here more than anywhere else.
“I heard yesterday that around 40 percent of guys [in Division I basketball] either transfer or go pro by the start of their junior year,” Beilein continues. But Novak and Douglass “unpacked their suitcases for good, from the minute they walked on campus. This was their dream job. They were going to be at Michigan for four years, they were going to make it work, and that in itself matters.
“They were coming from an environment where it was all about fundamentals, hard work, persistence, no shortcuts. When you’re building a team, the more guys you get with those things, who understand what it means to be a Michigan grad and how you get to be a good player, it’s invaluable. They brought the two things together.”
On the floor, Novak is an emotional leader—fist pumping, chest bumping, teammate checking. His most iconic moment came last January, when the Wolverines played No. 25 Michigan State in East Lansing. They hadn’t beaten the Spartans at the Breslin Center since 1997, and Novak seemed almost manic as he demanded the win Michigan had been waiting for since he was eight years old.
Eyes wide, fists clenched, face red, he screamed:
“We’re better than that!”
“You’ve got to trust each other!”
“You just don’t quit!”
For all Novak’s emotion, though, it was Douglass who coolly hit the game-winning three-pointer.
“We’re very similar, but in a lot of ways we could not be more polar opposite,” Novak says of himself and Douglass. It’s the first week of November, and they’re taking turns doing interviews in Crisler Arena’s new locker room. “He’s more … it’s tough to describe. I’m more outspoken. A lot of times he would be the good cop, I would be the bad cop. He’s more likely to be nicer, and I’m not hesitant to get into somebody. He’s always so stoic. You can see it when he’s playing. He doesn’t need to get hyped and get into people’s faces—and there I am screaming at someone.”
Hearing this later, Douglass slowly nods and smiles.
“It’s not like he goes and beats up guys and I have to console them, not like that,” he says. “But he’ll get after guys, and I try to be more of an encourager.”
It’s Douglass whom Beilein placed talented freshman Carlton Brundidge next to in the locker room. It’s Douglass, Beilein points out, who takes Brundidge and freshman point guard Trey Burke aside—guys who are essentially fighting for the senior’s minutes—and tells them what to watch for in games.
“It’s like a great quarterback taking his backup and saying, ‘Listen, if I’m not in there, you’ve got to be ready for this.'” Beilein says. “He’s teaching, very quietly, off the court.”
It is off the court where Novak and Doug-lass can pass unnoticed. Instead of team-issued warm-ups or sweatshirts, or even the ubiquitous block M logos that dominate campus attire for athletes and non-athletes alike, they’re dressed like any other two college undergrads, casually rumpled and mismatched, but in the kind of cool way you can only pull off when you’re a college undergrad.
Two years ago, in the midst of an on-court chemistry meltdown that would see the Wolverines slump to 15–17 and the team’s most talented player, Manny Harris, head for the NBA, Beilein remembers hearing about Novak sitting in class while another student complained about the previous night’s loss.
“The guy right next to him was just blasting our team,” Beilein says, chuckling. “Because we had lost a game where we shot too many threes. And Zack is just sitting there, taking it all in, and finally one of the hockey players says, ‘Dude, that’s Zack Novak, right there.'”
“It’s something I kind of pride myself on,” Novak says. “I don’t go to class in all the basketball gear or anything usually. I just try to lay low. I don’t want to say that I try to be a regular student—I am a regular student, I just happen to play basketball, too.”
“It’s funny, because we try to blend in, but we play basketball because we love the attention,” Douglass says. “All athletes love the attention they get from playing their sport or playing well in their sport.”
Just regular students … who happen to get the irony of trying to be Big Ten basketball stars and go unrecognized at the same time.
As much as the Fab Five became Michigan basketball, they were always something very separate from Michigan the university. There were no illusions on where the emphasis was in the phrase “Michigan basketball.”
They had no chance to be regular students, nor did they want to be.
The new basketball model fits in, and almost certainly fits better off the court at a place that wants to see itself as something more than just another sports factory, even as it struggles with a history of hiding overwhelming numbers of athletes in a handful of majors.
Novak is in the business school and talks casually about interning with an investment fund in Chicago last summer. Douglass will graduate with a degree in economics.
At this level, the student-athlete equation is a tough one to balance. “People can tell you all the time—’It’s going to be hard work’ or ‘You have to put in more work,'” but until you experience it, you have no idea,” Douglass says. “You’re in high school, and it’s so easy. School is easy, basketball is easy, and you’re getting all the shots, the coaches love you, your team is successful. And then you get here, and it’s so much more work.
“So. Much. More. Work. Really, it’s funny how much I enjoy just doing nothing now. You have so much school work and so much basketball.”
In November’s Maui Invitational, Michigan beat Memphis and UCLA and lost to Duke—all opponents that, like Michigan, expect to be playing in the NCAA tournament next March. As usual, Douglass and Novak were more steady than stars. Douglass averaged eight points over three games. Novak had twenty-two points in a win over UCLA and played a supporting role in the other contests.
If you compare their play in Maui to videos of their freshman year, the first thing you’ll notice is their physical maturity: all the soft and skinny freshman parts seem to have either hardened or bulked up into muscle. That’s the weight program Beilein praises both players for embracing.
You won’t have to watch long to appreciate the difference in their games.
Douglass is a markedly better defender now, using angles and alertness to guard bigger, quicker players up and down the court. His feet and hands both look quicker. He passes better—still more like a converted shooting guard than a true point guard, but good enough to get by.
Novak is better with the ball and his feet—much more likely to drive into an open hole in the defense or create his open scoring opportunity away from the ball. He has a better mid-range game, full of floaters and pull-up jumpers when he needs them. He’s crafty, usually good for one back-door lay-up a game, either as the scorer or the passer.
They’re still not about stats. Novak will often lead the team in rebounding. Douglass can sometimes string a big bunch of three-pointers or assists together. But neither is going to leave here holding any statistical records.
What they have done is to make Michigan basketball relevant again. The funny thing is that by doing so, they’ve made it nearly impossible for future unknowns to do what they did, at least not as freshmen. With the Wolverines nationally ranked and back in the NCAA, Beilein is able to recruit A-list talent.
When Douglass and Novak leave after this spring, they’ll be replaced by a couple of Hoosiers with NBA prospects: Mitch McGary, a six-foot-eleven center who’s generally ranked as the second-best high school prospect in the nation, and Glenn “Tre” Robinson III, an athletic forward who has developed into a consensus Top 25 prospect. Joining McGary and Robinson will be Nick Stauskas, a deadly six-five shooter from Canada, another Top 100 prospect.
McGary is also from Chesterton. Before heading to a New England prep school, he played on the junior varsity when Novak was a senior. Novak hosted him on his visit to Michigan and undoubtedly influenced his decision to pick the Wolverines over Duke.
“As much credit goes to Beilein and [assistant coach] Bacari Alexander, you have to put Zack Novak right up there in getting McGary,” says Sam Webb, recruiting analyst for GoBlueWolverine.com. “He was a huge character witness for this program. Without Zack Novak, do you get Mitch McGary? I don’t know.”
McGary is more Fab Five than any player Beilein has ever coached, at any school—both an opportunity and a challenge. He’s “an upper-crust talent put on a team where the reason they’re good is because the sum is greater than the parts,” observes ESPN recruiting analyst Dave Telep. “The structure is going to be a change for Mitch McGary, and the star power is going to be a change for Beilein. How those things come together in that petri dish will determine [the outcome of] the experiment.”
In the meantime, though, there is one final go-round for Douglass and Novak.
Last year’s best player, Darius Morris, declared for the NBA draft after his sophomore year, so they’re helping to break in new point guard Trey Burke. Douglass has already ceded his starting spot to the freshman. Having a rookie at point is a challenge in Beilein’s complex offense. Though Burke has shown the talent early in the season, it’s certainly not the best situation for two seniors who, like every senior in college basketball, want to go out with one of those big NCAA Tournament runs.
The big NCAA run is probably the last piece of the legacy, the biggest thing that still separates them from the ghosts of Michigan’s past.
“This program, it isn’t back to where it was in the 1990s,” Douglass admits. “They had results. They went to the national championship game and had a lot of success.
“But I think these are the right building blocks that needed to be laid down to establish the framework of everything Coach Beilein is going for. Hopefully people look at these four years and say this was the right way to build a program. It’s still not where we want it to be, but they did everything they could and it’s headed in the right direction. And this year … well … we’ll see.”