By Daniel Wasserman, Daily Sports Writer
Published February 19, 2012
“From Chesterton, Indiana: number zero, Zack Nooooooooo-vak.”
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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. He said he had confidence that his teammates could hold the lead, but the six consecutive losses against archrival Ohio State — games that often painfully slipped out of Michigan’s reach in heartbreaking fashion — must’ve been playing in his head.
But Jordan Morgan, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. took charge. With Novak sitting, the Wolverines outscored the Buckeyes, 8-6. It wasn’t a run that significantly widened the margin, but it was perhaps a sign of what will happen when Novak leaves. His younger, more naturally talented teammates will take what he left them — the groundwork and a blueprint for success — and improve upon it. It might be slow. Don’t expect National Championship banners to hang in two years, but watch, as the program will continue to move on an upward trajectory.
Zack Novak threw his hands in the air as the game clock finally hit 00:00. Burke smiled. The Victors blared. Michigan had just upset the sixth-ranked Buckeyes, 56-51. It was celebratory, but relatively low key.
Two years ago, students mobbed the court after Michigan upset No. 15 Connecticut, raising eyebrows around the nation. It was telling that Wolverine fans found a win over a team outside the top-10 monumental.
Twice in the last three years, with Michigan sitting on the bubble, Crisler Arena played host to a Selection Sunday party. When the Wolverines earned a bid, elated players and fans sprung out of their chairs and turned the hardwood into a dance floor.
But on Saturday, fans stayed in their seats. And come Sunday, March 11, there will be no festivities when Michigan’s name pops up on a bracket.
“Without a doubt,” Novak said, he’d remember this as one of the most memorable games as a Wolverine, but he was then quick to quell its magnitude.
“It’s just another step in the right direction.”
Zack Novak’s climb is coming to an end, and there’s no telling how many steps remain in his career. The Wolverines are closer to a Big Ten Championship than anyone could’ve predicted this year, but still, they’ll likely fall just short. Novak probably won’t cut down any nets this year, but in the future — the near future — Michigan will. Its players will climb a ladder with steps built by Zack Novak.
Daniel Wasserman would find it appropriate for No. 0 to be raised to the rafters. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @d_wasserman.