Saturday was an unfitting end to what will prove to be the first infant steps of the renaissance of Michigan basketball. It's hard to believe that Zack Novak and Stu Douglass had to leave that floor, one infused with their very sweat and, in Zack's case, blood, under such circumstances. It's been a labor of love for them, partly because it had to be. They were unheralded, dismissed, remote far-flung stars in the sky that were overshadowed to the point of non-existence by their more incandescent peers.
Since their arrival, Michigan has advanced to the NCAA tournament three times (including this year), won two tournament games, and infuriated opposing fans who have trouble reconciling the cognitive dissonance of a 6'4'' 4-man checking their star. I don't need to tell you that these accomplishments on the floor far surpass the entire sum of the last 10+ years of Michigan basketball. If everything goes right, Michigan could end up as high as a 3-seed this March; the best is yet to come for these seniors and this team. A Sweet 16 is being talked up as a realistic possibility, and with these seniors, the only response to such a heretofore quixotic notion is why not more?
After Zack and Stu had left the Crisler floor for good and the final seconds ticked ticked off with bitter slowness, all I could muster was an effusive, heartfelt thanks. This is a valediction.
Stuart Williams Douglass picked Michigan on November 14th, 2007, a day before Michigan began a woeful streak that saw it lose 11 of its next 13 games early in the 2007-08 season. He was a two-year starter from Carmel, IN, a Hoosier without offers from Indiana, Purdue, or even Ball State. I would imagine that all three schools are shaking their heads with the benefit of hindsight. Wisely, Stu chose to play his basketball in Ann Arbor instead of Kalamazoo, from where his sole other offer was extended. In trying to learn about who this person was, all I had was message board snippets about his ability to shoot from outside and a decidedly Lloyd Christmas-esque Rivals photo. He came from somewhere but nowhere.
He arrived and started right away, perhaps speaking more to the Michigan roster than Stu, at first. He nailed a team high 52 3s in his freshman campaign, including 6 in a tough loss at #1 UCONN (back when Kemba Walker came off the bench...I know). Stu's 3-point percentages, by season: 34%, 33%, 36%, 34%. No, he never became that free-wheeling gunner that vague message board snippets indicated he might become. He constantly hovered in a range that could be deemed with the often insulting "solid if unspectacular" descriptor.
The thing is, while we all--myself included--gnashed our teeth and belabored the fact that this unathletic 3-star, the type that Beilein depended upon for his offense to work, was not Mike Gansey, he was quietly becoming a good basketball player. People often forget that basketball is more than just scoring; a basketball player's worth is not defined by his ability to put the ball in the basket or to do it better than 40% of the time from 3.
He has become Michigan's best defender despite a lack of elite athleticism. If you're careless, he will steal the ball from you. As demonstrated on Saturday, he can even block your shot on occasion (he somehow had 9 last season). He handled the ball when Kelvin Grady or Darius Morris needed to rest and often did it well despite the uproarious criticisms of many. Over time, the turnovers and ill-timed treys that once plagued him earlier in his career have become few and far between.
Words like "intangibles" and "grit" are so often misapplied or cheapened by careless, indiscriminate usage. Players who offer nothing are often bestowed with such traits almost by default, ruining it for the ones who truly exceed their measureables or points per game figure. He has become a better ball-handler, a better defender, and even a better scorer; for the people who panic when a player doesn't show appreciable improvement between their first and their second or third years, I point you in the direction of Stu Douglass circa 2011-12. Stu has been using the dribble to get to the basket and/or create space for jumpers in a way that he wasn't even capable of last season. This is the product of thankless practice, of unseen efforts that are of the highest order of basketball strivings. Stu is the quintessential example of what an empty gym, hard work, and a ceaseless impetus to get better at something can do.
Most importantly, Stu was one of the two who entered the scene when everything was on fire, when ashes were just ashes and not the primordial soup of regeneration. When disaster strikes, there are those who panic and engage in the wrending garments. Wailing faces, upturned, wondering if this will ever change, if it will ever get better after it has been bad for so long. Michigan basketball was not too long ago akin to the tragic ending of King Lear, a scene dominated by melancholy and the overarching understanding that somebody had to continue on, to rebuild what had been destroyed, as impossible as it may have seemed at the moment.
Like Kent, there are those who choose not to forge on into the near future of uncertainty. Then, there are those who quietly, unassumingly rebuild amidst the fire and the chaos. Thank you, Stu.
There are times when I wonder if Zack Novak chose the wrong sport. I'm not sure what hockey presence may or may not exist in little Chesterton, IN, but if there is any presence at all then I think somebody was in the wrong to not pull this kid aside and say "we need you to sit right there in front of the net and bother the daylights out of that goalie over there." Sometimes, when imagining this alternate universe, I picture a world in which Zack Novak is the paragon of hockey pestdom. He sits in front of the net, an immovable boulder, unfeeling as defenders much bigger than him strike him in futile attempts to dislodge him from his entrenched position. He does all this just in case the puck happens to get through from up top in such a way that he can ingloriously push a rebound or cause a deflection that results in the puck finding the back of the net in the least aesthetically pleasing way that a goal can be scored. He would score 20 goals a season without a single iota of talent or puck-moving ability, and yet, he would join the pantheon of beloved players who had made their living doing this very thing.
He'd be a brawler, and sometimes he would probably often lose because he'd find himself up against guys much bigger than himself (in the hockey world, he'd be something like 5'10'' instead of 6'4'', of course). His team would be down, 0-3 in the second period. No energy; desultory, listless, weak. He would, quite literally, fight to change that. In one violent exchange, his team would realize what was at stake, and then they would go, after the ice crew had shoveled up the patches of blood-stained snow. Zack the hockey player is a guy whom hockey folks would unironically brand with the endearing term "sandpaper." That's what he is: in a word, sandpaper.
As interesting as this reality might have been, Zack Novak became a Wolverine. Like Stu, he was just a guy, a guy whom schools like Ball State, Northwestern, Purdue, and others didn't see fit to offer. He committed to Michigan in the March after Stu's November commitment; think about that. He had the chance to go to Valparaiso, a school that had, at that point in time, had more recent success of any kind than Michigan had had. He would have had a very solid career as a four-year starter there that may or may not have resulted in a Cinderella run to the tournament, probably ending in an opening round loss but maybe a Sweet 16 run at best if they were historically lucky. There would have been no shame in that.
Zachariah Joseph Novak thankfully chose to join the rebuilding effort in Ann Arbor. With the promise of a Michigan education and the chance to play in the Big Ten while being coached by one of the best coaches in the collegiate landscape, it must have seemed an incredible stroke of luck at the time. Although he did not start at first, he started the final 22 games of his freshman season, a season which ended in him getting violently dunked on by Blake Griffin. I don't mention this to be insulting or "funny"; when it happened, as many fired off the inane comments that they do when Griffin dunks on somebody, I sat there, appreciative. It was him and Griffin in the open floor. Zack knew what was coming. We all did. And yet, he tried to take the charge: foolishly, valiantly, and, most importantly, selflessly. Show me a small forward in the NBA that will try to take that charge in that situation against Blake Griffin and I will call you either crazy or misinformed; that person does not exist. He doesn't care if he's bloodied up, pushed around, embarrassed; in the end, the puck will be in the back of the net and you'll wonder how it all happened.
It didn't take long for Zack to start cementing his legacy as the grittest gritster who ever gritted in a Michigan basketball jersey. At this point, if he doesn't rack up a charge or two in a given game, it's safe to wonder if he isn't feeling well (either that, or Jay Bilas has somehow been allowed to officiate the game). His charges have become legendary, as has his ability to defend the likes of Draymond Green--and many others much bigger than him--with an admirable alacrity and capability. He is a modern-day David, staring down Goliath every time he steps onto the floor; a small forward, on the block, peering around the shoulder of a much bigger man like a pugnacious child. He is the younger brother that one day realizes that big brother is not so tough.
The saddest note in all of this is the fact that there will never be another Zack Novak. Michigan has more talented basketball players on the way, but I feel confident in saying that none of them will bring the same things that Novak has in his four years as a Wolverine. You can rebuild if you have the material, but you cannot rebuild if you don't have the material that comes from within, the visceral fire that sets the blood aflame, exciting the cells to deliver oxygen as if it will be the last time that it is asked to do so, and thus must do it in such a way that posterity can be proud of.
Novak's 4-7 from 3 in the home upset of Duke was a harbinger of future cold-blooded endeavors from beyond the arc. As much as Zack's game depends on physicality and "grit," he will assassinate you from outside if you give him the space to do so. Unlike Stu, Zack's 3-point percentages have gone up appreciably: 34%, 31%, 39%, 41%. His left-handed shot--a stroke typically reserved for more "polished," finesse types, like, say, Jalen Rose--is deceptively efficient; it was made for ending you. Its form and function combine to produce an accurate mortar that will destroy the house of ill-conceived comfort in which your once solid lead resided.
After Zack went 6-8 from 3 in East Lansing last season, it wouldn't have been too farfetched to imagine Old West style "Wanted" signs appearing all across the Midwest: "Wanted: Zachariah Joseph Novak, outlaw gunner; dangerous, armed; wanted, Dead or Alive." When he's on, he's on. The scene ends, dispatched ruffians strewn across the dusty grounds of some small western outpost's main thoroughfare. Onlookers watch from the galleries flanking either side of the street with mouths agape as the outlaw spins his revolver and blows the tendril of smoke languidly twisting out from within the gun's heated chamber.
While we all would have hoped for a better ending to these seniors' career in Crisler, it is but a footnote on their respective careers. You'll likely never find someone that despises the bevy of sports cliches in circulation today more than I do; however, with respect to these two, you have my permission to use any cliche you may think of when you want to tell your kids how great a 6'4'' power forward and a shooter that never shot greater than 36% from 3 once were.
Fortunately, the journey has not reached its end. Michigan still has two more games, a conference tournament, and the Big Dance to go. This team has been unbelievably exciting, and I get the feeling that noise will be made before all is said and done. No matter what happens, make sure to take the time to appreciate what these two have done for the program. Michigan basketball was, not too long ago, a lightless void of nothingness. There was no hope, no reasons for excitement or optimism. Zack and Stu not only helped change that with their play on the floor, they were the first ideologues to commit to the mere possibility of a revival by coming to Michigan. Thank them, because they surely did not have to do any of this.
Thank them for all the good times: the wins, the charges, the timely will-destroying threes, the surprising efficacy off the dribble this season, the fire, the leadership, the grit (meant seriously and without irony), the ability to put petty misgivings aside for the benefit of the team, and, most importantly, for raising Michigan basketball from the domain of the dead. Thank them for all of this, because it will be over soon, and there will never be another Zack or another Stu. There never will be and there never can be.