Novak quietly benefitting from position change

Daily Sports Writer
Published December 8, 2010

Zack Novak vividly remembers a specific play from the Michigan men's basketball team's signature victory over Connecticut last season.

Tied at 47 well into the second half, Husky guard Donnell Beverly lofted an alley-oop pass from the top of the key, trying to set up Novak’s man with a flashy finish. But the Wolverine forward saw it the whole way. Novak timed his jump better than his Connecticut counterpart and slapped the ball away from the rim and into the hands Michigan guard Darius Morris.

In transition, Morris passed up to former Wolverine guard Laval Lucas-Perry, who took a shot from behind the arc that just missed off the front rim. Seemingly out of nowhere, a streaking Novak came rushing into the paint for the offensive board and made the put-back with three Connecticut defenders breathing down his neck.

That sequence may have topped off the matchup’s highlight reel, but Novak admitted after the game that when he thwarted the alley-oop attempt, he was simply trying to avoid being dunked on for the third time that game.

Such was life for the 6-foot-4 forward last season. Then a sophomore, Novak was matched up against some of the nation’s premiere frontcourt talent — from Kansas’s Marcus Morris to Michigan State’s Draymond Green — and he struggled mightily at times playing in the post.

And though the occasional hustle plays and highlight-reel blocks — along with his ability to dunk with more authority than any of his teammates — have made him a fan favorite in Ann Arbor, he was still wholly undersized as a forward in Division-I hoops.

Luckily for the Chesterton, Ind. native, Michigan coach John Beilein had something different in store for the 2010-11 season. With the addition of freshman forwards Evan Smotrycz, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Colton Christian, he told Novak over the summer that he’d finally get his chance to play at his natural position — shooting guard.

“We can always put the smallest four-man in Division-I back there — Zack Novak — because he battles, and he gets some things done,” Beilein said at Michigan media day last month. “But he’s been playing out of position for two years, so we pretty much said, ‘Colton and Evan, you go after that position, and may the best man win.’ ”

Now, eight games into the season, that change has become a blessing for the Wolverines (6-2).

Matched up against men his own size, Novak has cleaned up the glass like never before, and he leads the Wolverines in rebounding with 61 boards — 7.6 per game. He’s now on pace to finish this season with over 100 rebounds more than he had last year.

And in his last two games, Novak registered the first and second double-doubles of his career.

“I was thinking the whole time going into this year it was going to be easier to get rebounds,” Novak said after his 14-rebound performance against Concordia last Friday. “I’m not having to go against guys that are way bigger than me. But my teammates are doing a great job blocking out — I’m just getting easy rebounds.”

Easy rebounds or not, his increased output as the two-man has helped in more ways than one.

Now that Novak has replaced junior guard Stu Douglass playing at the top of the key with Morris, Douglass has seemingly found his niche coming off the bench. His new role as the sixth man has added depth to the young Wolverine roster, providing a much-needed spark from that spot late in a number of games this season.

Against Harvard last Thursday, the sharpshooter single-handedly kept the stalling Michigan offense in the game with his 16 second-half points, en route to a 65-62 victory. And to top it off, Novak had a double-double in that game as well — 12 points and 11 rebounds.

“This young man right now — I think he scored 18 or 20 against Ohio State as a starter — and now he’s coming off the bench,” Beilein said. “That’s the teamwork; that’s the unity that we’re looking for. With Stu being able to do that, now other people believe (in our depth).”

And even with Novak and Douglass thriving from their respective position changes, the switch hasn’t been perfect.

So far this season, Novak has shot at a woeful 31-percent clip from the field, which is significantly less successful than in each of his previous two seasons. But if he can turn it on from 3-point range like he has in the past, expect more good from these changes to come.