SALT LAKE CITY — Last night, there was a glaring, gaping hole in the Michigan basketball team.

Its heart was missing.

Or rather, sophomore guard Zack Novak was missing.

He hasn’t been the go-to guy in the Wolverines’ offense, or even the key to the their 1-3-1 zone defense. But when Michigan needs someone to dive across the floor for a loose ball or bleed for the team, he’s the guy.

Two nights ago, Novak came down with gastrointestinal flu. He felt fine until the Wolverines’ practice Tuesday night in Salt Lake City. There, he began feeling ill and started to vomit.

Michigan coach John Beilein said that Novak had trouble “keeping anything down” until last night. The sophomore didn’t leave the team’s hotel to come to the game against Utah.

“We miss him a lot, we absolutely miss him a lot,” Beilein said after Michigan’s 68-52 loss. “That is one guy we can always depend on. He’s always going to block his man out. He’s always going to hustle. He’s always going to do some pretty good things.”

With Novak out of the lineup, players like senior forward Zack Gibson, sophomore guard Stu Douglass and freshman Eso Akunne saw increased playing time.

Gibson started in Novak’s place, giving Michigan a chance to showcase a big lineup with Gibson and senior forward DeShawn Sims simultaneously on the court. According to Beilein and evidenced by Utah’s eight-point halftime lead, the strategy didn’t work.

Beilein also put Douglass and Akunne on the court in an attempt to get the Wolverines’ guard play to click. Douglass saw his time increase to 27 minutes, and Akunne 17. Though that additional time on court didn’t translate to points — Douglass led the pair with just five — it still helped Michigan gain one thing it can’t in practice: experience.

“Our guards are just so young, (and) we’re playing very young,” Beilein said. “We just got to continue to get more experience and keep teaching them.”

That word “young” came up multiple times last night, and it was always with the same message. With a young team, the cure is usually in upperclassman leadership. But on this team, Novak, a second-year player, is also expected to be one of the team’s on- and off-the-court leaders this season.

“We missed him a lot — just his hard work, aggressiveness, his offense, everything,” junior guard Manny Harris said. “No excuses. Our team should have still found a way to pull out the win.”

Harris is another player Michigan has looked to for guidance, and the junior successfully led by example last night by scoring 25 points. The next steps, though, are tougher. He needs to become a more vocal leader, and then it’s time to get the team on the same page mentally.

“It’s not good right now,” Harris said. “We’ve got a find a way to get everyone’s confidence back up, get everybody mentally into it. It’s not good right now, but I know it’ll get there.”

0-for-2: In the waning minutes and with the game’s outcome all but decided, the Utah student section began chanting, “Just like football.”

For Michigan fans, it’s a painful reference to last fall’s football game, in which Utah beat Michigan 25-23 in Ann Arbor. That was the first shock of the Rich Rodriguez era, and the win jumpstarted the Utes’ undefeated season. Their 2008 campaign ended with a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.

According to Utah’s athletic website, the Utes received $800,000 to play in the football contest, and the deal included an agreement for a home-and-home basketball series. Utah will come to Crisler Arena next season to complete the deal.

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