Mon Sep 12 09:00am EDT
The moment that best captures what Zack Novak means to Michigan occurred late in a crucial game at rival Michigan State last January as the Wolverines' hopes of springing a season-salvaging upset were slipping away.
Fists clenched and face reddening, Novak gathered his teammates during a timeout and tore into them for their sporadic effort. Michigan responded by outplaying the Spartans down the stretch, preserving a 61-57 win that sparked the Wolverines' unlikely revival from a 1-6 Big Ten start to an NCAA tournament berth.
"Normally I try to stay even-keeled, but it was such an important game and things weren't going the way we wanted it to, so I just lost it," Novak said. "I wanted to make sure guys knew it was the biggest game of the year. We were struggling, but I knew if we won that game, it would turn everything around."
The improvement of young guards Darius Morris and Tim Hardaway Jr. received most of the credit for Michigan's resurgence last season, but the Wolverines also would not have come within a bucket of the Sweet 16 without the contributions of Novak. In addition to averaging career highs of 8.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, the 6-foot-4 sharpshooter displayed the same knack for inspiring his teammates with both his words and work ethic that he has throughout his Michigan career.
There are the games he held his own at power forward against the likes of Illinois' Mike Davis or UConn's Jeff Adrien despite giving up five inches and 30 pounds to both. Or all the times he has sacrificed his body taking a charge in the lane or skidding across the floor after a loose ball. Or the day his freshman year when he returned to a game against Illinois with six stitches above his left eye mere minutes after an elbow from guard Alex Legion sent him to the locker room with rivers of blood pouring down his face.
That's exactly the kind of passion and toughness Michigan coach John Beilein hoped Novak would bring to the Wolverines when he signed the unheralded Chesterton, Ind. native as part of his first recruiting class. Beilein felt Michigan lacked those qualities during a nightmarish 10-22 season the year before Novak arrived.
"I don't believe Zack will have his jersey retired at Michigan, but he's had a tremendous impact on the rebuilding and remodeling of Michigan basketball," Beilein said. "He's as good as it gets as far as knowing how to encourage a team without berating them. And then he goes out and does it. You're not an effective leader if you're talking about taking charges and you don't take them or if you're talking about playing hard or going to class and you don't do it. He does it."
The competitiveness of Novak is no surprise to his longtime friends and family because they've seen it up close since he was in grade school.
As a kid, Novak threw away the participation trophies he received in youth leagues because he felt they were worthless since he didn't win anything to merit them. And in high school, Novak had a reputation for locking himself in his room or slamming doors so hard he broke them after difficult losses.
"I was very fortunate his senior year when they ran off wins in their first 16 or 17 games because when they did lose it was hell living with the kid," his father David Novak said. "He couldn't understand how it could happen. It didn't matter who they played. I'd sit there and try to reason with him, and he'd give me a look like, 'That's the best you've got?'"
Of course, David Novak can't complain too much about his son's win-at-all-costs mentality since he was one of the people who instilled it in Zack. David and Zack's mother, Dana, both played basketball in high school and encouraged their son to start learning the game at the park behind their home as soon as he was old enough to pick up a ball.
When David founded a travel basketball team in Chesterton when his son entered fourth grade, he didn't spend much time having Zack and his friends practice jump shots because they would have to readjust their form as they got older and stronger anyway. Instead David emphasized defense, rebounding and hustle plays in hopes that the team could keep the scores low and generate easy transition buckets that way.
Getting benched for not taking a charge always left Zack fuming when he was in grade school, but he admits it eventually forced him to alter the way he played.
"I did it out of fear," the younger Novak said. "Diving on the floor getting a bruise was nowhere near as bad as getting yelled at. It stuck with me, and now it's a habit. If I see a ball on the floor, I go after it. And taking charges, it's the same thing. It's just those team plays that make a difference. If you have a whole team with guys who are willing to sacrifice their bodies like that, you're going to be tough to beat."
Even though Novak started from his freshman year on at Chesterton High and averaged an impressive 21.6 points and 8.0 rebounds as a junior, interest from even small in-state colleges was surprisingly scant.
Coaches doubted whether Novak had the size to play in the paint in college or the quickness to thrive on the perimeter. Valparaiso was the lone Division I college to offer Novak a scholarship prior to his senior year, but coach Homer Drew pulled that offer when another targeted prospect committed prior to the 2007 early signing period.
"People around here assumed he had so many opportunities that it would be him deciding, but at the start of his senior year it was anything but that," David Novak said. "What amazed me was there were no small schools calling, not even Division II schools. I was kind of stunned."
The lack of interest from colleges persuaded Novak to alter his diet entering his senior year in an effort to shed weight and increase his agility. He cut candy and sodas out of his diet, traded fast food and red meat for chicken or fish and seldom went back for seconds even when his parents cooked his favorite foods.
As a slimmer Novak lit up opponents for 26.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game as a senior at Chesterton, word reached Beilein that one of the state of Indiana's leading scorers wasn't being recruited by any top Division I programs.
First Beilein watched tape of Novak and came away impressed with his outside shooting, a staple of the ex-West Virginia coach's system and a weakness of Michigan's in the new staff's first season in Ann Arbor. Then Beilein attended several of Novak's games and marveled at the hustle plays he consistently made.
When Beilein approached Novak after a particularly strong performance in a sectional playoff game in February of his senior year, the Chesterton star greeted the Michigan coach with a question he wasn't expecting.
"He flat-out asked me after a game, 'Coach you've seen me three times. Do I have a scholarship or not?'" Beilein recalled with a chuckle. "I just liked that in him. I was in my first year at Michigan and I was still trying to figure out what we needed, but I told him, 'Let's bring you here for a visit and if you like it, it's yours."
Novak rewarded Beilein's faith in him from the moment he arrived at Michigan, starting the final 22 games of his freshman season and nearly every one since. He has played more power forward than wing as a Wolverine because Beilein believes it's more difficult for opposing big men to defend Novak on the perimeter than it is for him to keep them from scoring in the paint.
Novak will likely play both positions again as a senior, but he has prepared this offseason as though he will log more minutes at shooting guard. With Morris having turned pro and true freshman Trey Burke set to replace him at point guard, Novak has tried to add the ability to beat his defender off the dribble to his game because he believes Michigan will require him to do that more often next season.
Regardless of the senior's increased offensive versatility, what Beilein values most about Novak remains his leadership and win-at-all-costs mentality. Beilein even sometimes calls him by the wrong name during practice because Novak's game reminds the coach so much of two of his previous players, Joe Herber of West Virginia and Scott Ungerer of Richmond.
"I know he's fond of those guys, so I guess it can't be a bad thing," Novak said.
In a strange way, it's indeed a compliment. Those were guys who did the little things to make Beilein's past teams successful, exactly the legacy Novak will leave at Michigan when his college career ends next March.
More conference previews from the Dagger:
ACC: Lessons from the pros keep North Carolina humble and hungry, ACC projections and storylines to watch, Ex-Wake Forest star Ish Smith scouts the league, Ranking the 15 best non-league ACC games, Q&A with Florida State junior Michael Snaer
Atlantic 10: Temple's Micheal Eric hopes to seize his chance, A-10 projections and storylines to watch, Ex-Xavier star Byron Larkin scouts the league, Ranking the 15 best non-league A-10 games, Q&A with St. Louis guard Kwamain Mitchell