By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Back home again in Indiana.
While that's the title of a song that's the unofficial anthem of the Hoosier state, it also describes what four University Michigan men's basketball players will be experiencing on Sunday (Feb. 8, 1 p.m.) at Indiana University.
Zak Irvin, Spike Albrecht, Andrew Dakich and Sean Lonergan will run onto the court amid packed rows of fans cascading down from the steep rafters of storied Assembly Hall. They'll pick out a guy they went to high school with or a neighbor wearing red and white and cheering with a religious fervor for their opponents. But Michigan's "Indiana Boys" will be wearing maize and blue, and getting a shower of boos.
Their roots and who's rooting for them will be two different things.
This is a phenomenon that began seven seasons ago, when Zack Novak and Stu Douglass, neither of whom was recruited by the Hoosiers or Purdue, were Wolverine freshmen hailing from Indiana. Both -- and particularly Novak -- were central in attracting Albrecht and his other home state classmates, current NBA players Mitch McGary of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Glenn Robinson III of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Most of them have known one another since elementary school, and they share rides back home to Indiana for school breaks. They've been coached by one another's dads, become best friends, and even shared a bed on AAU road trips.
They've formed a bond that is at the essence of Michigan basketball.
It all started with Douglass committing to Wolverine coach John Beilein before his senior season at Carmel High near Indianapolis and Novak following suit before graduating from Chesterton High, located near the Lake Michigan sand dunes.
They were seniors when Michigan won its first Big Ten title in 26 years in 2012. Novak became the school's second three-time basketball captain that season, and Douglass was a two-time captain. They brought spirit, leadership, tough defense, three-point shooting and connections to the program.
Albrecht of Crown Point High, McGary of Chesterton High and Robinson of St. John Lake Central -- dubbed the "Region Boys" by Albrecht -- came in together from the northwest corner of the state and sparked the Wolverines to a Final Four appearance as freshmen. Irvin, Indiana's Mr. Basketball in 2013 from Fishers (Ind.) Hamilton Southeastern, came last year along with walk-ons Dakich of Zionsville High and Lonergan of Fishers High.
"I love to see what the Indiana guys have done for the program," said Douglass, who is playing in Israel for Hapoel Afula. "There is a lot of pride involved with sports, and that definitely applies when you talk about players from your area or state. In a way it sort of validates where you come from. You can't say the basketball is good where you're from unless there is something to show for it, and everybody wants to be able to say it. I'm glad I can say that and point to Michigan as evidence."
Novak, now living in Chicago and working for a consulting company, said Beilein's ability to find often obscure talent and develop it is central to the story. Only McGary, who spent his senior season at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, and Irvin were considered blue-chip recruits.
"It's more than just the Indiana guys," said Novak. "It's the John Beilein culture."
Beilein values players with high basketball IQs who are out-going and relentless. Indiana -- the most basketball-crazy state in the country --is loaded with that kind of player.
"I don't think there's any doubt that there's been a residual action," said Beilein. "Zack went to Chesterton and Glenn Robinson watched him play. Mitch McGary obviously watched him play from the same high school. And I asked Glenn about Spike because Glenn had already committed and signed with us. Glenn just said, 'Coach, every time we play them, he gets like 25 on us. He's a really good player.' So, they all really knew each other.
"They call it 'The Region' where they come from in Indiana, and we're so glad we have them. And now we have Zak Irvin as well, and we're going to continue going in that area because in Indiana they have really good players. And they really are well coached. There are a lot of good coaches across the state."
FRIENDSHIP PAVES THE WAY
The camaraderie the "Indiana Boys" developed as far back as early elementary school allowed them to hit the floor running as teammates.
"I've known Mitch and Spike since they were five," said Novak. "Spike's older brother (Stephen) is my age and we played against each other on rival teams. Our dads, who played together at Purdue-Calumet, coached the teams.
"They were killing us in one game and Spike's dad put him in the game. We were in fourth grade and Spike was in first. Spike comes right in and takes one of our guys to the basket and scores on him! That guy never heard the end of it."
A dozen years later, Beilein asked Novak's opinion on Albrecht and was told, "'Absolutely! You've got to recruit that guy."
Albrecht said, "That's a major reason I'm here. I've known Zack since first grade, and I watched Zack since then, and then we all came to Michigan.
"When Zack came here it was kind of awesome to have a guy from 'The Region' playing in the Big Ten. So, everybody instantly became Michigan fans. I never knew much about Michigan until he came here. And then I watched Coach B coach him, and never dreamed that I would have a chance to come here. But when Coach B called him about me, I'm sure Zack put the full-court press on him for me. And he was able to make it happen -- the rest is history.
"And I knew Big Mitch -- big, goofy Mitch -- all the time while growing up. I love Mitch and have been playing against him since fourth grade in the same AAU league. Mitch was like a tall string bean. He was always very skilled and he had great vision and feel for the game. But then he left his senior year to go play in prep school like I did after I played my four years in high school. Purdue was offering him before he went out there, but he just blew up there and became one of the top five players in the country."
Robinson was their high school rival, but McGary and Albrecht connected with him by playing together in summers.
"I played against Glenn all four years in high school," Albrecht said. "We were all three in the same conference -- the Duneland Athletic Conference. And I just remember seeing Glenn -- I was a junior and he was a sophomore -- and he hadn't turned into that athletic freak yet. He was still growing into his body, but committed to Michigan. And he improved so much in one year.
"It's been an unlikely story, but we've all enjoyed our time together here. Me, Glenn and Mitch call each other the 'Region Boys.' And we played on SYF (Sports Youth Foundation) together -- so we were the 'SYF Boys.' And (Michigan forward) Max (Bielfeldt) played on that team, too. So he's a 'SYF Boy.' "
Wayne Brumm was their SYF coach on a Gary-based team.
"Coach Brumm is also a big reason why I'm here and they're here," said Albrecht.
"That was an absolutely unique experience playing with those guys," Robinson said. "I'll never forget it."
COMING TO MICHIGAN
Robinson led McGary to Michigan.
"My best friend, Glenn Robinson III, already committed to Michigan," said McGary, "and he convinced me to go with him. Also, Spike Albrecht ended up going to Michigan too. I thought it was great to have two of my great friends who I played travel basketball with on my team."
Robinson was central to landing Irvin.
"Glenn Robinson definitely had a big impact on me picking Michigan," said Irvin. "I remembered playing against him in high school and it was pretty cool that we were both going to Michigan.
"Nobody ever thought, back in our freshman years of high school, that we'd all end up at the same university and become some of the closest friends we each have."
Irvin, who played in summer leagues with Lonergan and Dakich, encouraged them to come to Michigan. So did McGary and Robinson.
"Last year the Indiana guys really bonded," said Lonergan, "and I think that was something that really helped us."
Michigan won another Big Ten regular-season championship in 2103-14, and took Kentucky to the wire before losing an Elite Eight game in the NCAA Tournament.
"All of these guys influenced me a lot," said Dakich. "And I played with (Wolverines forward) Mark Donnal, too, in AAU in Ohio since the fourth grade because we used to live there. My dad was the coach. I played against Zak since eighth grade and knew Sean since my junior year."
Lonergan, who drives a Jeep Cherokee, said, "Going home I drop Zak and Dock (Dakich) off on the way. We're as tight as can be, the tightest group on this team, whether it's hanging out in the gym, playing video games. It's a friendship that's grown so much that I couldn't see it growing to this extent.
"I love these guys and they're great teammates."
Dakich said, "It helps a lot because we know each other's tendencies. And if you have to get on someone, you know how to handle it and nobody will take it too personally. When you know one another, you can be like a big brother."
"I would say we have a brotherly bond," he said. "We all came from the same place and grew up playing basketball together. We came in having the same image in mind, trying to win a national championship. We played with each other before so we all had the same mentality and we knew we played well together."
Albrecht said he carpooled home on school breaks with Robinson and McGary as a freshman, and then hitched a ride with either one when they got cars.
"Those are two of my best friends," said Albrecht. "The three of us joined the same AAU team and roomed together in one hotel room with two beds on road trips."
What determined who slept in the beds?
"Sometimes there were pull-out couches," said Albrecht. "But if anyone was sleeping on the floor, it was me. Those two big guys were getting the beds. We were roomies. And sometimes, if the floor was nasty, I said, 'Glenn, scoot over. You stay on your side; I'll stay on my side.' But it was fun. I had a great time with those guys, and fortunately I was able to team up with them here. The two years we had here was something I'll never forget.
"And I'm still in touch with Zack, Glenn and Mitch all the time. Zack calls me up to talk or give me advice. And Glenn and Mitch, I miss those guys like crazy. I'm always checking to see how they're doing in the NBA. I'm excited about their futures and love following them. And those guys still bleed blue."
That's never truer than when Michigan plays at Indiana or Purdue.
RETURNING AS THE ENEMY
"I can recall a lot about going back and playing at I.U. and Purdue," said Douglass. "I loved every second of playing there in front of friends and family. What I recall with the most detail is winning there. Winning at I.U. and Purdue will always be some of my fondest memories from college. There was always a little extra motivation knowing your friends at each school were fans of the basketball team. That was always a huge boost to the ego when you'd see them in the summer and they would talk about their school's team. My uncle is also a Purdue booster, and so I didn't mind upsetting him when we beat them.
"The fact that neither school offered me a scholarship, it made winning in their gyms as gratifying as possible."
Robinson was partial to the Purdue games because his father, Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson, was the 1994 John Wooden Award winner as the nation's top player for the Boilermakers.
"Had Purdue offered me a scholarship," said Robinson, "I probably would've gone there. I grew up loving Purdue. But I believe everything happens for a reason, and I'm so happy I went to Michigan."
He beat the Boilermakers last February, 77-76 in overtime, with a stunning shot.
"Caris hit me with the inbounds pass," said Robinson, "and I jumped to get it and got past my man. I got the shot off and it rolled on the rim. I thought, 'Please go in or I'll never hear the end of it.' And when I dropped, it was something I'll never forget, that buzzer-beater."
When the Wolverines cross the Indiana state line, exciting games have a way of breaking out.
Glenn Robinson III surrounded by his teammates after making a shot at the buzzer to win the game against Purdue at Mackey Arena.
Irvin said, "Those are my favorite games all year."
McGary said, "Returning home to Indiana was one of my favorite moments in college basketball. At the time, Purdue was really good and I had a good game and we won so it was great. Then when we played Indiana it was one of the most hyped games because we were ranked No. 1 and they were ranked No. 3. It was difficult to go back and have fans talk smack and try to get in my head, but it meant I was doing something right. I really enjoyed playing at the Indiana arena. It's one of my favorite places to play because of how it's built, the history, the great program and it's the loudest place I've played in."
Dakich said, "Going back there brings back a lot of memories of shooting with my dad. I was born there and moved back in middle school. Going back there last year gave me the chills because I grew up watching Indiana basketball because of my dad."
His father, Dan Dakich, played and coached for Bob Knight at Indiana University before becoming the head coach at Bowling Green. He's now an ESPN analyst.
"It's a weird feeling because you go out there and see so many people that you know," said Albrecht. "Most of the kids from our area either go to Purdue or I.U. So, you have a bunch of kids you know cheering against you for the first time. It's a weird feeling. They'll say, 'I'm rooting for you, but I still want I.U. to win.' Or they'll want Purdue to win."
"But it's also a lot of fun to get to play against your home state schools. They didn't recruit me -- either one of them. So, it's my chance to go out and prove myself. People are texting me, saying they are going to be there, and I am going to have tons of people there. And Zack is going to be there. There will be a lot of Michigan fans there Saturday."
Novak flew across the Atlantic Ocean to see Albrecht come off the bench to score 17 points in an 82-76 championship game loss to Louisville in 2013.
"I was playing in Holland but came back just to watch my guys in Atlanta," said Novak. "I sat by (1991 Michigan Heisman Trophy winner) Desmond Howard, and it was a pretty cool experience."
The "Indiana Boys" are always there for one another, and it's been that way almost as far back as any of them can remember.