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Daniel Wasserman: The microcosm of Zack Novak

Erin Kirkland/Daily
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By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 19, 2012

“From Chesterton, Indiana: number zero, Zack Nooooooooo-vak.”

Bobb Vergiels’ voice cracked slightly as he said it, adding the extra umph that the occasion deserved. The game hadn’t even started yet, but as Novak approached midcourt to shake William Buford’s hand, the crowd was already louder than it had been all season.

Then the lights came on, ending the build-up to the most publicized Michigan basketball game of the season — perhaps the milenium. The questions about Ohio State were over. ESPN’s College GameDay set — which attracted a national television audience to Ann Arbor on Saturday morning and night — had been whisked away from center court. The fans, who began lining up at 11 p.m. on Friday, were in their seats.

And at 9:05 p.m., the ball tipped off, and none of the hoopla mattered. Just Novak, nine other players, two hoops and a ball. Just a basketball game — but so much more.

Zack Novak planted his feet, put his hands up, and just two minutes into the game, established the area just outside the key on Crisler’s floor as his own. National Player of the Year candidate Jared Sullinger came barreling in with the ball, looking to even the score at two apiece.

It was a classic matchup of talent versus grit. Sullinger, the best player on the best team in the conference, was a top-three recruit coming out of high school. Novak, the heart and soul of a team fighting to stay in the race for a conference championship, had no Division-I scholarships before Michigan finally offered.

At first, Sullinger won — his powerful move to the basket sent Novak sprawling to the floor. But then, official Mike Kitts emerged, thrusting his arm in front of his body. As he has done so many times in his career, Novak had drawn a charge.

When John Beilein was hired in 2007, skeptics said he’d never succeed in the Big Ten. Beilein’s offense was synonymous with finesse, and his lack of emphasis on rebounding meant he’d never make it outside the Big East.

But there was the undersized Novak, a guard, winning a battle against a future NBA lottery pick with his effort alone. It was just another play for Novak, another play for the Michigan defense that’s become one of the toughest to play against in the conference.

Zack Novak swatted the ball away from Lenzelle Smith Jr., beat two Buckeyes to the loose ball a few feet from the baseline and raced up the floor.

Michigan had numbers — three maize jerseys streaking to the hoop, with two scarlet-clad defenders trying to protect their basket. Novak was the slowest of the five, but at the moment, it didn’t matter.

He bypassed his teammates first and then made his attack at the rim. Between two Ohio State defenders, the ball rolled off of his fingers, off the glass and through the net.

The play epitomized Novak’s four years in Ann Arbor. He was thrust into the starting role as a freshman. As an unathletic guard, he was asked to battle the Big Ten’s best big men, but he kept winning low-post battles on grit, out-hustling players with more ability than him.

Like his coast-to-coast scoring path, he took Michigan from a program that once viewed an NCAA Tournament berth as its pinnacle to where it is now — a team that looks destined to become a perennial contender for conference championships.

Novak picked up steam, eventually defying the odds and beating his faster competition — reminiscent of the 2010-11 squad. That team was tabbed as a Big Ten bottom feeder, but it gained momentum at a rapid rate down the stretch and earned a March Madness bid against all odds.

Before you could blink, Michigan was ahead, 6-0. The fans — the same ones who didn’t show up for years, scarred from the embarrassment of the Fab Five sanctions and the appalling years that followed — were on their feet, roaring.

Zack Novak slowly jogged to the bench, exasperated, and took a seat. With the Wolverines ahead, 29-24, two minutes into the second half, he picked up his third foul and knew he’d be on the bench for an extended period.

In about a month, Novak will be taking another seat — but this time he won’t be getting back in the game. The time remaining in his career is waning. The program that he built practically from the ground up will be left in the hands of his younger apprentices.

Saturday night, knowing there was nothing he could do from the bench, Novak looked on helplessly.