Feb. 22, 2012
By Alex Lozier
"We've been through so much and seen so much. We have the same chip on our shoulder, and people have the same doubts about both of us. Just to bring this program along like we both have, to see where it's gone from our freshman year through the last four years; we're both really proud of it." - Stu Douglass
On April 16, 2008, John Beilein finalized his first recruiting class as head coach of the University of Michigan men's basketball team. The three-man class included a pair from the Hoosier State -- 6-3 guard Stu Douglass from Carmel and 6-4 guard/forward Zack Novak from Chesterton. Unranked and unknown, the two were viewed as a last resort.
It had been 10 years since Michigan had reached the NCAA Tournament, 10 years since it had won the Big Ten Tournament and 12 years since it had earned a regular-season Big Ten championship. And after a 10-22 record overall and no postseason appearance in Beilein's inaugural 2007-08 season, the program's slump had hit an all-time low. No one thought Douglass and Novak were elite enough to deserve a Big Ten scholarship, but they were the best available options; Michigan's future did not look promising.
Amid the doubts and criticism, Douglass and Novak remained humble but confident. Like most freshmen, the duo knew they would have to fight for playing time against their older, more experienced teammates. It was unclear how much opportunity they would receive to contribute. Yet from day one, they identified the skills they had to offer. In a "Getting to Know the Freshmen" series in 2008, Douglass explained that he was known as a shooter but was working on defense and ball-handling. Novak described his play-hard first mentality, his versatility and his ability to score.
The initial goal was simple -- to rebuild the program. "[Coach Beilein] just told us, 'I need my guys to be able to turn this around,'" said Novak.
But Douglass and Novak were lucky to even be part of the program; there were little expectations for how much they would be able to accomplish. As a team and as individuals they had something to prove.
Just three games into the season, Douglass backed up his words. The freshman knocked down key baskets, including two three-pointers, to pull his team out of a six-point halftime deficit and upset No. 4 UCLA at Madison Square Garden. The performance got Douglass noticed and established his identity as a shooter. But it also marked the first step of the turnaround; Michigan had not beaten a top-five opponent in 11 years.
Two weeks later it was Novak's turn to steal the shooting spotlight. Trailing midway through the second half, No. 0 hit back-to-back triples, highlighting a 14-point night, to regain the lead and help Michigan knock off Duke in its second victory over the No. 4-ranked team of the season. The pair from Indiana had come to be known as just that -- a pair.
"I think a lot of people don't even know the difference between us half the time," said Novak, "I get called Stu all the time; he gets called Zack."
"I'll never forget the day I airballed a shot and later in the game, Zack caught a pass and they yelled 'air ball' at him because they thought it was me," Douglass added.
Even as their roles on the team grew to differ, their association persisted.
As Big Ten Conference play began, the freshman duo had each earned a place in the starting lineup. Douglass remained in his natural position at the two-guard, while Novak was moved down to the post. It was then that Novak, playing significantly undersized, started to get recognized for his self-described play-hard first mentality, and each of their individual identities began to develop.
Embracing their roles and opportunities to contribute, the freshmen helped the team to a 19-12 record overall and the next step in the program's turnaround: a bid to the NCAA Tournament after its 10-year absence. The team did not disappoint, upsetting No. 7-seed Clemson before falling to No. 2-seed Oklahoma, which rostered future No. 1 NBA pick Blake Griffin.
The unexpected success of the 2008-09 campaign garnered a preseason No. 15 ranking for Douglass and Novak's sophomore year. However, the team faltered, finishing with a 15-17 overall record and no appearance in postseason play. The success of the previous season was seen as a fluke, and all of the doubts and criticisms returned even harsher.
Yet the year proved to be a necessary learning experience for Douglass and Novak, as each took on new responsibilities in just their second season. Douglass accepted the task of backing up the point guard position, having never played the role before. While he admits it wasn't easy switching between the one- and two-guard, experiencing the role of playmaker helped him in his future leadership role on the team.
Novak had a similar but more direct experience with leadership. He embraced the role as co-captain of the team, only the second sophomore in program history to be named so. Novak confessed difficulty in his new responsibility as well; many of his teammates were upperclassmen and guided him the year prior. But these struggles and the disappointment of the season only prepared them for future success.
As the oldest members of the team, Douglass and Novak were named leaders and co-captains for their junior year, strengthening their association. At the same time, however, Beilein's recruiting classes had become more elite every year, and Douglass and Novak had to continue to fight for playing time.
Riding a six-game losing streak through the middle of Big Ten Conference play, the 2010-11 season was, by all accounts, headed to be another disappointment. On Jan. 27, Michigan headed to East Lansing, where it had been unable to get a victory over the Spartans in the past 11 seasons. The junior captains proved their importance on the team in both their leadership and talent.
Forever associated with the shot of Novak screaming at his teammates during a timeout, Michigan defeated No. 25 MSU when it seemed that only the team itself believed it could. The captains led the team, with a team-high 19 points coming from Novak and the victory-sealing three-pointer by Douglass with 22 seconds remaining in regulation. The pair had made their mark on the next step of the turnaround.
After a 1-6 start in conference games, Douglass and Novak led Michigan to wins in eight of its next 12 games, including a 70-63 victory over Michigan State to sweep the Spartans for the first time in 14 years. After turning their season around, Michigan was rewarded with its second bid to the NCAA Tournament in three years. The captains each scored in double figures in the team's 75-45 blowout of Tennessee, before Michigan fell just a basket short to No. 1-seeded Duke and of advancing to the Sweet Sixteen.
"I'd go back to the tournament game last year against Duke," said Novak, when asked about the one thing he would want to change in his career. "I don't know what I'd do, but just to be that close and not get it done. I don't know what I'd do differently, but I'm sure I'd find something."
In their senior season, Douglass and Novak have led Michigan to eight consecutive sellout crowds, its highest national ranking (No. 11 AP) in 15 years, a chance to remain undefeated at home for the first time in 35 years, and a chance to win the Big Ten Conference regular-season championship for the first time in 26 years.
And when Douglass and Novak walk out on the court for their Senior Night before Saturday's game against Purdue (Feb. 26), they will each do so ranking in the top 10 for both career minutes played and career three-point field goals made.
"To have that when we weren't supposed to have Big Ten scholarships, weren't supposed to play, weren't supposed to start our freshman year, and weren't supposed to make the tournament -- we've played throughout our entire career. [It] has been a big accomplishment for us," expressed Douglass.
Through both their leadership and their work ethic, the pair of unknowns from Beilein's first Michigan recruiting class achieved that initial goal -- to rebuild the program. And for that, Douglass and Novak will always be respected and remembered.
Even after the final chapter of their careers has been written, their legacy will live on through the core values they've instilled in their younger teammates -- integrity, appreciation, passion, diligence, and unity. Douglass and Novak have been there every step of the way in the program's turnaround, but just as importantly, the pair has ensured that it will continue to rise even after they are gone.