The house that Stu and Zack built

By the time Stu Douglass and Zack Novak are done with their senior seasons at the University of Michigan they will go down as two of the longest tenured seniors in school history. After all, the 2010-11 team was completely devoid of anyone pending graduation so Stu and Zack will have held the leadership reins of John Beilein’s program for what seems like forever.

Even so, don’t expect anyone to be pushing them through the exit door as they leave town. No two players can more single-handedly stake claim to the Michigan basketball renaissance than these two unheralded recruits from Indiana.

Rob and I had an opportunity to sit down with Douglass on Thursday morning and were able to get an inside look at one of the young men most responsible for bringing respectability back to Ann Arbor on the hardwood.

The funny thing about being a part of something special is that when you’re knee deep in it, you hardly have time to step back and recognize what has already been accomplished.

Coach John Beilein reached out and grabbed two scoring guards from a bordering state that very few major schools even knew about, let alone cared to recruit. All the Hoosier state duo has done since is bring their dedication and passion to basketball to Michigan every day and help redefine a program along the way.

“It’s crazy, you know I was thinking, me and Zack will graduate and if we have a good year, two or three years down the road we might realize (it),” said an introspective Douglass. “It’s hard to be in the middle of it and think about what you’re doing.”

“Slowly as we get older and get into our senior year it’s kind of hitting us, how important this has all been and how important we’ve been to the program.”

Important indeed. Beilein inherited a program that was on life support with almost zero national recruiting clout. He was left to search for high character, coachable kids, who he could build a program with. Douglass and Novak fit the bill.

With key contributions from the freshmen tandem, Michigan surprised everybody by plowing their way into the final 32 in the NCAA tournament in 2009, breaking a long drought of relevant postseason play along the way.

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The 2009-10 campaign was met with disappointment as individual goals trumped team objectives and Michigan failed to make noise in March. Questions started to simmer in the background about the direction of the program and if Beilein had the right players to compete with in a physical Big 10.

After a strong non-conference stretch to open the 2010-11 season, Michigan entered Big 10 play with hope and confidence. They were rudely greeted by a stacked Big 10 and instantly fell to the back of the conference pack.

The final straw was a home loss to Minnesota. Preaching a new motto of “personal accountability”, Michigan waltzed into their personal house of horrors, The Breslin Center, and beat the Spartans in their own building for the first time since 1997. It was a 3-pointer in the waning moments by Douglass that sealed the deal.

“That was probably one of the biggest game sealing shots I’ve ever had,” mentioned Douglass.  “It doesn’t really hit you, it hits you that night, but later down the road how important that game was. Especially how well we played against them at home and established the sweep.”

With the win in East Lansing came an inspired stretch of late season basketball that propelled Michigan into the top-tier of Big 10 teams and an NCAA first round beat-down delivered by the young Wolverines to a helpless Tennessee team.

“Beating MSU twice last year: I think that awoke a lot of the Michigan fan base,” added Stu.

All eyes were on the tightly-knit Michigan squad as they found themselves in a round of 32 match up against the powerhouse that is Duke Basketball. A torrid 2nd half by Michigan brought the game within reach in the final seconds. As a potentially overtime-sending Darius Morris floater bounced off the rim, the season instantly ended.

But something strange occurred that day. Michigan fans were no longer hoping for a win, they were expecting a win. It wasn’t a “hey, heckuva season” type of feeling. It was the feeling of a goal not reached, an expectation not realized, and a good omen for the future.

With success comes a decision. Will a young team continue to rise up and meet the next challenge or will they lay back on the feeling of “good enough”?

Well, if you know anything about Stu Douglass and Zack Novak, rest easy Wolverine faithful, the best has yet to come.

Even as he enters his senior season, Douglass continues to work on his game. The 6’4’’ point/shooting guard with the flawless release has yet to have a breakout season from 3-point range.

When asked about the notable difference between his solid results when shooting in rhythm v. struggling when standing on an island, wide-open, Stu seemed a little surprised, and a little relieved.

“That’s right on, not many people observe that and that’s what I’ve been telling a lot of people,” Douglass noted.

“It’s always perplexed me, it’s tough because with Darius coming off the ball screen a lot of my job was to be in the corner and be ready to shoot. It’s tough for me to kind of sit there and create a shot, create energy out of just sitting there. I was a Reggie Miller fan; he was my favorite player growing up. So I worked on all the time throwing the ball out and faking a cut like somebody was guarding me. Even when I was in second and third grade I’ve always been shooting off the move, that’s all I did in high school, coming off screens. It’s more of a mental thing; thinking about it is the worst thing.”

The learning curve never stops, not when John Beilein is your coach. Douglass praised both John Beilein and assistant coach Lavall Jordan for continuing to develop his all-around game. However, in the summer months, coaches don’t have access to the players like they do during the season so naturally Stu and Zack have been paving the way.

During open gyms, Douglass has taken on a leadership role. “Showing them the offense, there are 3 or 4 times I remember saying this is how coach wants you to cut, this is how coach wants you to catch it right here, stuff like that – it’s ingrained in your head,” he said. “It’s almost like Coach Beilein is there without actually having to be there.”

Part of the burden of being the bridge between a fledgling program and an elite one is that you miss out on the great things that follow. Michigan is renovating Crisler Arena and constructing a state of the art practice facility. Stu is understandably eager to see them completed.

“It’s exciting, we just want it to get done,” he said. “I was joking around, I might go help just to get it done a little quicker.” When discussing the house that Stu and Zack built, Douglass remained humble, “It’s just cool to be connected to it and hopefully people will remember me and Zack and how we helped bring that along.”

Regardless, Douglass will continue to work alongside his roommate and friend, Zack Novak, to give Michigan fans one final thrill before they leave the campus.

When asked what kind of legacy he wanted to leave behind, Douglass said, “When it comes down to it remember that me and Zack did everything we could in our power to help this program. We’re not the most skilled or greatest players, not the highest recruited players, but we gave our all for the program.

Something special is happening at Michigan. This team harbors a chemistry that is rarely seen in team sports these days. “It was funny, Coach K, I saw him in the hallway and he stopped me after the Duke game in the tournament and he said, you guys are probably the closest team I’ve seen,” Douglass explained. “He could just tell that from playing against us. As far as college teams go, I think we’re as close as it gets.”

So as Stu and Zack continue to battle it out in the all-time 3-point shooting department in school history, they prepare to leave a legacy behind that no one could have fathomed just 3 short years ago.

Click here to read Part 1: Stu Douglass looks back as he prepares for senior season

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