When Zack Novak returned from the Michigan basketball team’s trip to Europe this summer, he was confident in one thing:
The Wolverines were going to make the NCAA Tournament.
Safe to say, Novak was one of the few who could say that with a straight face. His own mother couldn’t even certify her son’s pipe dream.
“I thought you were stupid,” she told him the other day, when the two spoke on the phone.
“No one thought (we would make it),” Novak admitted after the Wolverines’ Selection Show gathering at Crisler Arena on Sunday.
But the thing that’s different about this team, the one thing that no one could deny all season — from the Wolverines’ bevy of devastating losses to its sweep of Michigan State — is that this team has heart.
That fact was never more obvious than when Michigan’s name was called in the No. 8 seed of the West bracket.
The whole of Crisler Arena burst like a maize and blue fireworks show, as players leapt out of their seats with the same look of disbelief that most fans wore all season. The team that wouldn’t win, couldn’t win, had won.
It’s a theme that’s been missing from Michigan sports the last few years. It’s something that you could see written all over Novak’s face as his grin went ear to ear for the rest of the bracket selection.
I’ve written plenty the last year or so in this column about how Michigan sports (read: mostly football) have underachieved, missed out on opportunities and generally just not carried themselves as Michigan teams should.
I don’t need to tell you that the football team gave up at times this year — the lack of execution speaks for itself. And it took me until last night, watching the faces of a young, inexperienced squad of Michigan athletes, to understand why this basketball team was so different from the past three football teams.
This team has heart. And a hell of a lot of it.
It also has a coach that its players and fans can trust, through thick or thin.
“(This team) wasn’t going to win on experience,” Michigan Athletic Director Dave Brandon said as the pandemonium died down inside Crisler Arena. “It wasn’t going to win because it played an easy schedule in an easy conference. This was all about heart — and great coaching.”
Michigan sports teams are supposed to have both of those at all times. They’re supposed to overachieve, shock and intimidate — that’s what makes the alumni and fan network so vast and the list of wins so long.
That’s why underachieving coaches get fired after three seasons. That’s why new coaches are hired who can unite first and win soon after.
It’s a winning formula that has been written in pen through all the NCAA history books in maize and blue. You don’t become the winningest program in college football history without that formula. Or a softball powerhouse. Or an Olympic swimming legend. Or even the best water polo program in the East.
It’s what makes much of the remainder of the country despise Michigan fans. It’s why the rest of the country hated the Fab Five. Fans and students have all heard people mock the concept of “The Michigan Difference” — the idea that Michigan is a notch above the rest, especially when it comes to sports.
And it’s that formula that made “The Michigan Difference.” It’s that formula that won the 1989 National Championship when the Wolverines weren’t supposed to. It’s that formula that put Novak on his feet to a raucous Crisler Arena crowd, all watching CBS’s Selection Sunday coverage.
Novak knew the formula before he got off the plane this summer from Europe. And it was clear as the season unfolded that the rest of his team learned it — and fast.
The question is whether the rest of the Michigan sports landscape can learn the same thing from a young, ragtag group of players whose heart was stronger than a nation full of doubts.
-Kartje can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.