- File Photo/Daily
By Daniel Wasserman, daily Sports Editor
Published October 31, 2011
With expectations mounting and an already solidified buzz on campus, the Michigan basketball program is attempting to reach the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1995 and 1996.
Crisler Arena received a makeover, student ticket sales have skyrocketed from a season ago. Fans who still can’t get over losing four straight games to Michigan State’s football team are beginning to remember that the Wolverines have won two straight on the hardwood against their in-state rival.
But there’s still the skeptic, who will point out that this year feels a lot like two years ago, 2009, when the team — and all of its preseason glory — proved to be an utter disappointment.
That year, Michigan — led by guard Manny Harris and forward DeShawn Sims — returned four starters and its statistical leader in every major category.
This year, the Wolverines return four starters, including their leading rebounder, shooter and scorer during conference play.
That year, Michigan entered the season ranked No. 15 in both national polls.
This year, the Wolverines are ranked No. 18 in both polls.
That team was coming off a season that began with minimal preseason expectations, but for a half, it looked like they might upset Blake Griffin-led Oklahoma in the NCAA Tournament’s second round.
This year, the Wolverines are coming off an improbable run to the tournament that nearly saw them knock off Duke and advance to the Sweet 16.
But that's where the similarities end.
That year, Michigan lost its leaders — the heart and soul of its team — senior guards C.J. Lee and David Merritt.
This year, the Wolverines bring back their senior leadership, forward and three-time captain Zack Novak, as well as guard and two-time captain Stu Douglass.
That year, Michigan finished 15-17, failing to qualify for postseason play.
This year, Novak and Douglass promise that what happened two years ago won’t happen under their watch. Novak and Douglass's veteran leadership represent everything that was missing from the 2009 team.
“We had a lot of talent on that team, but that team and that year was evident that talent doesn’t equate to wins,” Douglass said. “You’ve got to bring the leadership, you’ve got to bring the motivation to stay hungry. I think with this team, we don’t really have to say much. These guys are motivated and ready for the season to start.”
While Michigan coach John Beilein partially blames a hamstring pull to Harris early in the 2009-10 season, it’s no secret — to anyone inside or outside the program — that the team’s chemistry was lacking at times.
“C.J. Lee and David Merritt were the missing components from the team that went to the NCAA Tournament to the team that didn’t,” Beilein said. “I don’t know if (Novak and Douglass) can make sure (sophomore forward) Tim Hardaway doesn’t have a hamstring pull like Manny Harris did. … They can’t do everything, but I feel good going to practice everyday with those guys out there.”
The Wolverines' basketball program has fallen accustomed to producing surprising results — good and bad — in recent years.
Former Michigan coach Tommy Amaker’s teams often entered seasons with high expectations but could never seem to live up to them. Three years ago, lowly Michigan upset two No. 4 teams (UCLA and Duke) on its way to the program’s first tournament bid in 11 years. And after the following year’s disappointment, last year’s squad — picked by some to finish last in the Big Ten — proved that strong leadership, coaching and chemistry, sprinkled in with enough talent, could be a missed floater away from a Sweet 16 berth.
As the comparison between the two teams has drawn a great deal of attention, both Novak and Douglass have been cautious with their words.
“Dave and C.J. just were so good at what they did,” Novak said. “I think guys just never really had to lead at all — they just took it all under control. When they left, there was just this massive void and no one really knew what to do.
“I’d hate for (our younger players) to go through something like that.”
Added Douglass: “I think we kind of didn’t stay focused and every team I’ve ever been on wanted to win,” he said, biting his tongue for a long pause. “But we’re a little more hungry this year.”
To make sure that year doesn’t happen this year, the duo has preached the values of winning, and to a greater extent, not losing.
Novak, in particular, made a lesson out of several open-gym practices throughout the summer, in what he called the team’s most competitive offseason in his career.
“My team would lose and it’d be stupid mistakes, we really shouldn’t have lost that game so I’d just go nuts, like off-the-wall, way more than I needed to for an open gym — but I’d just lose it,” Novak said. “I just wanted them to see that passion for winning, even in open gym.”
Coaches and players inside the program aren’t the only ones taking notice of Michigan’s senior leadership, though. Even the Spartans’ head coach, Tom Izzo, had high praise for Novak.
“I love the kid,” Izzo said. “Anytime you get a senior who has been around for four years and been through the bad times and now some of the good times, they’re worth their weight in gold.
“I would think Zack Novak is still the most important player on Michigan’s team because some of those guys — (Hardaway Jr.) doesn’t know what it’s like to through the bad times. Zack Novak does and I think that makes you a bigger commodity.”
In order to prevent two years ago from striking again, Michigan will draw on some pieces from the past and combine them to form a puzzle that players and coaches inside the program believe will lead them to another tournament appearance.
Led by Hardaway Jr. — a Wooden Award watch list player — the Wolverines have the talent to match the 2009 team, but thanks to Novak and Douglass, have the leadership of the 2008 team.
But even for the skeptics that are still out there, when Michigan opens against Wayne State on Friday, two familiar faces that were absent two years ago will be back in the building.
Merritt, Michigan radio’s color commentator, and Lee, who sits behind the team’s bench and stands inside the huddle as the program’s administrative specialist, will be with the Wolverines as a constant reminder for just how far senior leadership can carry a team.