- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Zack Novak drove through a storm on a day when tornadoes crushed northern Indiana, only to find his scholarship to Valparaiso pulled. Stu Douglass played terribly during a tournament in Las Vegas and had coaches from Colorado and Purdue say they were no longer interested.
The lead-up to their senior years of high school couldn't have gone much worse. Neither knew where he'd play college basketball.
Separated by three hours and stretches of Interstates 94 and 65 in Indiana, they barely knew each other, had not heard from Michigan, and their Big Ten basketball plans were nonexistent.
Yet they were going through the same thing with the same thoughts: No expectations, few options and little hope.
They were, in some ways, exactly what opposing fans had heckled them with almost their entire Michigan careers.
"How we sucked and Michigan basketball coming back is a joke," Novak said. "Because we have two guys they picked up at the YMCA on the team."
Understand, there is some symmetry to all of this. The last time Michigan basketball needed a reawakening, its key was discovered in a physical education class in Chicago.
While Novak and Douglass are not Cazzie Russell, the man who went from a nice find to an All-American and the best player in Michigan history, there are similarities.
A year after Russell's career ended, Michigan finished building a brand new on-campus facility -- Crisler Arena. By the time Novak and Douglass' senior seasons started, the Wolverines had a brand new practice facility and home: the Bill Davidson Player Development Center.
Novak and Douglass were, in many ways, the epitome of what Michigan coach John Beilein recruited over the first 30 years of his career -- smart players he could mold, high-character people he could turn into good college players.
He'd done it everywhere he had been with players not many programs wanted, from Darrell Barley at Canisius to Scott Ungerer at Richmond to Johannes Herber and Kevin Pittsnogle at West Virginia. He pulled the trick again at Michigan, where his two senior captains have turned into the crux of his rebuilding project with the Wolverines.
It is unlikely Novak and Douglass will have their names hanging in the Crisler Center rafters like Russell, Phil Hubbard, Rudy Tomjanovich, Glen Rice and the late Bill Buntin, but those players whose names are hanging in the south side of Crisler have noticed what Beilein and his two captains have done to rejuvenate what they once created.
"They are the cornerstones," Hubbard said. "But you have to build around them. That's how I saw it, that you had to get the help to help those guys, but they were good building blocks.
"You needed more than a couple guys, but that's a good start."
Meet and Greet
Novak and Douglass met before Michigan and Beilein found them during an AAU tournament at, of all places, Notre Dame.
Novak barely played on his Indiana Elite team that weekend. Douglass was so excited about learning how to dunk that he couldn't stop doing it in pregame warmups.
Neither knew he'd end up at Michigan, becoming teammates, friends and eventually roommates. Beilein, meanwhile, embarked on his first season at Michigan, taking over a program still recovering from the Ed Martin scandal that to this day doesn't allow the school fully to acknowledge the Fab Five. Beilein had a reputation as a program-builder, having most recently turned West Virginia from a bottom-feeder in the Big East into a team with an Elite Eight appearance, a Sweet 16 appearance and an NIT championship in his final three seasons with the Mountaineers.
When Beilein arrived, his staff went looking for players and saw something no one else did in two Indiana guards. So he offered them scholarships, signing Douglass in the early signing period and Novak late.
If he hadn't, both Douglass and Novak likely would be wearing shades of red right now: Douglass playing for the Harvard Crimson and Novak at Indiana -- as part of the student section.
So when they arrived at Michigan, they were essentially the same player: unknown guards from Indiana who could shoot but with no fanfare and hardly any scholarship offers.
They were recruited by a man who knows what it is like to be a second choice.
When Beilein was hired at West Virginia, he wasn't the first pick there. He got the job only after Dan Dakich accepted the gig, stayed for a little while and then returned to Bowling Green.
West Virginia then hired Beilein, and he made the most of it by doing what he does best -- preparing and building.
Novak and Douglass weren't the first choice of almost any college recruiters. They ended up taking their last, best option. Much like Beilein, they took a chance on an opportunity.
"Coach Beilein did sell us on the fact that we did have a unique opportunity here," Novak said.
What that was, though, was a question. Michigan had been awful in Beilein's first season, going 10-22. Playing time was there. So, too, was the chance to build something.
Even if they weren't sure they'd be the ones to do it.
Slowly coming together
Novak and Douglass weren't roommates at first -- Douglass lived with another member of their recruiting class, Ben Cronin -- but they were competing for the same spot. The guys with almost identical stories were fighting for the same position in the starting lineup: shooting guard.
Douglass won the job before the season and started the first 13 games of the 2008-09 season. His parents, Matt and Nancy, were nervous and "giddy," even though they didn't discover he won the job until they arrived at Crisler Arena for the season opener.
"He was real businesslike," Nancy said. "There wasn't any jumping up and down for joy. He took it very seriously, very calmly."
It would foreshadow how he handled the rest of his career, bouncing in and out of Michigan's starting lineup through varying roles as a point guard, shooting guard and sixth man.
Novak played behind him, but at the start of the Big Ten season, he was moved into the lineup at forward. He and Douglass started for the first time together on Dec. 31, 2008, at home against Wisconsin -- a 73-61 loss.
I looked at him (Zack Novak) and told him if I were going into an alley to fight, he would be the first guy I would grab.
”-- Michigan great Cazzie Russell
Douglass left the starting lineup the next game before returning later in the season -- a theme of his career. Novak, save for a one-game suspension his freshman season, hasn't left the lineup since.
Novak's ascension into the lineup, where he has been a fixture over the past 3½ seasons, marked a turning point. Michigan fed off his energy and leadership, as the way he plays infected the entire team and changed the culture of a program.
"He's come a long way, man," Russell said. "Novak has seen both sides of it. He's now experiencing what hard work, what commitment, what the coaching staff is trying to do and what he experienced as a freshman.
"I looked at him (in January) and told him if I were going into an alley to fight, he would be the first guy I would grab."
As freshman starters, Douglass and Novak were role players along for a surprising NCAA tournament ride spearheaded by Manny Harris, DeShawn Sims and senior guards C.J. Lee and David Merritt.
Considering that Michigan had spent the previous decade watching the NCAA tournament on television, they couldn't have known they were going to be building blocks to the resurgence. Harris and Sims were potential NBA prospects. Novak and Douglass were not.
But Novak and Douglass held Michigan together.
"The solid glue of the team was those two guys," said Tomjanovich, the former Houston Rockets coach now scouting for the Los Angeles Lakers. "There's going to be stars and bigger names and guys who score more, but the guys down in the trenches, they are so important to the team.
"I had guys like Mario Elie and Scotty Brooks, guys like that who were the mortar on the team. We had guys like Hakeem (Olajuwon) and Clyde (Drexler), but those guys were very important. That's where (Douglass and Novak) fit in."
It is a role they have always embraced. Both joke they are "kind of" athletes -- mostly because of how they have always been viewed by outsiders.
Those who watch Michigan basketball know what the two mean to the program. Novak's toughness permeated throughout the team and is part of the reason he isn't worried about what will happen next season when he leaves.
Douglass has spent a portion of the season tutoring freshman guard Trey Burke, his calming influence and most reliable 3-point option on the court.
What Novak and Douglass started has turned into what Michigan has now.
Hubbard's declaration that they needed pieces of help came in following seasons in a long line of recruits considered Beilein's best ever -- Darius Morris, followed by Evan Smotrycz and Tim Hardaway Jr., with Burke and Carlton Brundidge arriving a season later.
"What we've come from, come out of, we talked about not getting scholarship offers, chip on our shoulders, Michigan being the only school to give us a shot playing in the Big Ten," Douglass said. "To come in with some similarities and to exceed people's expectations simultaneously, take this program to where it hasn't been in so many years together, we've looked at each other sometimes this year and no words need to be spoken.
"Just an understood respect for each other and an understood acknowledgment for what we've done and the hard work we've put in."
When Beilein signed Novak and Douglass, he noted separately their passion and how much they had won. He also said something else -- something to remember when looking at recruiting and their careers.
"The true assessment of a class is four years later," Beilein said four years ago. "Right now, though, we feel these four young men meet some of our needs as we continue to build this program."
Laval Lucas-Perry, a transfer from Arizona, eventually left for Oakland. Cronin had his career end due to injury. But the two unheralded members of the class made it through.
For so long, Novak and Douglass heard about what they couldn't do.
On Senior Night on Saturday against Purdue, they'll be recognized for what they've done. From unnoticed in high school and unexpected when they arrived at Michigan, they have brought the Wolverines back to relevance. And that is unmistakable.
Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @mikerothstein.
Once barely recruited prospects from Indiana, Zack Novak and Stu Douglass have provided the foundation for Michigan's re-emergence as a college basketball player.