Zack Novak and Stu Douglass first recognized each other at an AAU tournament the summer before their senior year of high school. It was probably at Notre Dame, though nobody’s sure. Neither player was especially noticeable, so neither fully remembers that first encounter.
They officially met at an Indiana state all-star game after the conclusion of their senior seasons, when both of them had committed to Michigan.
On Saturday, four years and 130 games later, the pair of Hoosier State natives, whose fortunes at Michigan have been inextricably bound, will take the court at Crisler Center for the last time.
It will be the first senior-night ceremony in two years for the Wolverines. They didn’t have any seniors on the team last season, so Novak and Douglass have been the team’s elder statesmen for two years now.
And though the senior guards have been busy focusing on the season, they’ve had a few moments where the reality of their careers coming to an end has hit them.
“It was kind of weird to think about … where we’ve come since (freshman year),” Douglass said. “It’s a little bit of a blur, (and) everything kind of gets jumbled together, but it’s weird.
“It’s kind of a mixture of both — it seems like you’ve been here forever, but then I look back and it feels like it was just yesterday that I was roommates with Ben (Cronin) in West Quad.”
The duo’s careers were linked even before they got to Ann Arbor. Both Novak and Douglass were undersized, relatively unathletic guards from Indiana. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t attract a lot of recruiting attention. Douglass didn’t know if he’d get to play Division-I basketball after Colorado pulled its scholarship offer, and Novak wasn’t sure if he’d play basketball at all, with his only offer coming from Valparaiso.
But Michigan coach John Beilein eventually called. He didn’t really need to try hard to convince Douglass or Novak to join the Wolverines considering their limited options, but he still sold them on helping rebuild a once-great program in the midst of a 10-22 season.
Nobody imagined the pair would lead Michigan back to the top tier of the Big Ten — not even the players themselves. And Novak and Douglass have had lots of help in leading the Wolverines to the precipice of a third NCAA Tournament appearance in their four seasons, but from the days they competed for a starting spot as freshmen, they’ve helped lead the team together.
“Anytime you can do something with someone else, share an experience, it’s generally better,” Novak said. “We’ve been through a lot. We’ve seen a lot of things. I think it’s just a bond that we’ll have forever.”
It’s fitting, in a way, that Novak and Douglass will play Purdue in their final home game. The Boilermakers were one of many in-state programs to overlook the pair out of high school.
Michigan topped Purdue in the teams’ other meeting this season, a 66-64 win in West Lafayette on Jan. 24. The Wolverines controlled the affair most of the night, though the Boilermakers made a late run in vain.
In that matchup, Michigan did a decent job on star Purdue forward Robbie Hummel, holding him to 6-of-14 shooting, but struggled more in containing point guard Lewis Jackson. Beilein praised the elite quickness of Jackson, who finished with 17 points and eight assists.
The Boilermakers come to Crisler in a chaotic state. Purdue coach Matt Painter dismissed backup guard Kelsey Barlow and suspended guard D.J. Byrd (who has since returned) for their roles in an alleged bar fight.
But Purdue has won three of its past four games and is desperately looking for a big win to get off the bubble and lock down an NCAA Tournament bid. The Wolverines saw firsthand how hard a team in that situation will fight, needing overtime to defeat Northwestern on Tuesday night.
Still, Beilein’s team has won four straight games, its longest streak of the conference season. And while the game against the Wildcats was on the road, Michigan gets to play the Boilermakers at home, where it’s won all 15 of its games.
The Wolverines will be extra motivated to get their senior leaders a victory in their last time taking the Crisler Center court. Douglass said he’s constantly reminded that his time is running out. Beilein will mention how many games he has left, or sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr. will remind him while walking through the tunnel out to practice, forcing Douglass to tell him to shut up.
Against Purdue on Saturday, he and Novak won’t need any more reminders.
“It feels like I’ve been here forever, so the timing is right,” Douglass said.