November 29th 2008 was the first Michigan Basketball game I covered at Crisler Arena (now known as Crisler Center or The House that Stu and Zack Built). Michigan was playing Savannah State and the Tigers were giving U-M all they could handle. The Wolverines had stormed back from an improbable 20 point half-time deficit to tie the game in the closing seconds. However, Savannah State had a chance to put up the game’s final shot and potentially snag a monumental victory. Then with 3 seconds left on the clock Zack Novak, a little known freshman, stole the ball and drove the length of the court for a game winning shot of his own. He rose up for a dunk and it rattled out – sending the game into OT.
U-M eventually won on a DeShawn Sims three-pointer at the buzzer. I knew right then that there was something special about Novak. He played with the heart of a Lion, he was relentless and fearless. In the postgame locker room as reporters mobbed Sims to talk about his game winner, I joked with Novak about the missed dunk. He was good natured about it and I instantly liked his personality.
Fast forward to March 2012 and Novak has etched his name into Michigan history as an unparalleled leader and the heart and soul of the team that claimed U-M’s first Big Ten championship since 1986. He is just the second three-time captain in program history. It was Novak’s impassioned and know famous pep talk during a timeout at Michigan State last season that led to a Michigan victory and turned the tide for the program. Since that game the Wolverines have posted a 33-13 record and are about to make their first back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances since 1995-96.
Novak was named to the All-Big Ten team honorable mention team for his outstanding senior season in which he averaged 9.5 points and 4.6 boards per game. He also shot 48.8% from the field and 41% from beyond the arc.
Novak has spent much of his career playing out of position as a 6-foot-4 power forward in the most physical conference in the country. He has more than held his own and this season became the 28th player in Michigan history to tally 1,000 points and 500 rebounds in a career. He currently ranks 4th in school history with 209 made three-pointers.
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During the 4 years we’ve covered Michigan we quickly realized that nobody takes a loss harder than Zack Novak. He will stand there with a forlorn look on his face as if he had just lost to Josh Bartelstein in Madden. I’ve heard reporters come up with some really long questions and pose them to Novak after a loss. His answer is usually something along the lines of, “probably” or “I guess so” accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders.
There was one night in particular last February that I’ll never forget. Michigan had just lost the ultimate heartbreaker when Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser banked in a three-pointer at the buzzer. Joe and I happened to be walking out of Crisler as the Wisconsin team bus was pulling away. Behind the bus Novak was also pulling out. He had this look on his face that led me to believe he could have picked up the Wisconsin bus and ripped it half. The beauty of it is that Novak is always able to channel that frustration and turn it into a positive during the next game – evidenced by the fact that Michigan hasn’t lost back-to-back games since January of 2011.
Novak is also a really good sport. When we launched our, Is Zack Novak the Chuck Norris of Michigan Basketball campaign earlier this season he knew we were going to ask him about it. When we finally did ask him his response was great, watch the video below
Novak will start his 91st consecutive game on Friday at the Big Ten Tournament. He ranks third all-time in career starts (119) at Michigan. He has logged more minutes than any Michigan Basketball player except for Louis Bullock (who he trails by 109 minutes). By the time the Wolverines are done with their run to the Final Four, he will have surpassed Bullock.
He doesn’t just shine on the court either. He was recently named a Capital one Academic All-America third team member, becoming the first Wolverine to receive the honor since 1984. He is also a finalist for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award.
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You’d be hard pressed to find a player anywhere in the country who plays with the tenacity and determination that Novak does. There have been loose balls I’ve watched heading out of bounds and thought were a lost cause, only to see Novak appear out of nowhere and launch his body into the courtside seats or throngs of photographers on the baseline to save.
A case in point was Michigan’s win at Northwestern on February 21st. It was early in the OT session and the ball was on its way out of bounds and appeared, to me, to be beyond saving. Fortunately for Michigan fans, Novak doesn’t think any loose ball is beyond saving. Suddenly he emerged out of nowhere on the baseline and in a desperate heave was able to toss the ball back onto the court. It ended up bouncing off Northwestern’s Reggie Hearn and somehow, of all players, Novak had the ball back in his hands, drove right into the lane, spotted Trey Burke and fed him for a three-pointer that kick-started the Wolverines 18-6 run in OT.
Thanks to his leadership and undaunted courage, Novak will forever be remembered as a Michigan Legend. His contributions to the program simply cannot be measured by any tangible means. John Beilein saw something in him and offered him a scholarship that nobody else was willing to offer. Novak repaid him with 4 years of the most inspired basketball that has ever been played. During the course of that 4 year run, Michigan Basketball went from a dormant program to a national power on very stable ground.
And for his impassioned efforts during that 4-year run, Novak will go down in history as one of the all-time great Michigan Men.