About 5 years ago the Michigan Wolverines basketball team was in a total rebuilding mode under John Beilein. Looking to fill a few roster spots to help round out his team he tapped two shooting guards from nearby Indiana. In came Zack Novak and Stu Douglass with little fanfare and perhaps even less expectation.
What took place over the next 4 years from this tandem of tireless leaders completely reshaped the way Michigan basketball is played and helped force this program back onto the national scene. isportsweb.com ranked Novak the 7th best shooting guard in program history after his graduation. Click here for the full list. Stu Douglass wasn’t far behind.
Novak was on the court for more clock time than any Michigan player, ever. Douglass never missed a game in his career, playing in 136 consecutive contests. Novak was a 3-time team captain and Stu earned the honor twice.
Zack ranked 4th in school history by the time he was done by drilling 213 career 3-pointers. Stu ranks 5th with 205. The mark left by these two players will be felt for years to come.
We checked in with Stu and Zack to get updates on the start of their pro careers, some reflection on their time wearing the maize and blue, as well as their thoughts on the current state of the basketball program.
For 2 guys who used to share a roof as college roommates, much has changed. Novak has begun his professional career in Zwolle, Netherlands while Douglass has hooked up with the Navarra Club in Pamplona, Spain. Nearly 900 miles of road separates the duo these days as they face the challenges of a new home, their first new team in half a decade, and the other odds and ends that complicate life when dropping roots in a new country.
Zack says that one of his biggest transitions has been using cash over plastic. He notes, “The hardest part for me has been using cash everywhere. Nobody takes credit cards here. I hate carrying cash and coins, but I guess I’ll have to learn to live with it.”
Stu has handled the language barrier well enough with some rough Spanish but is having a heckuva time driving stick shift. “I haven’t seen an automatic yet,” he says. “I blame my dad,” he jokes. “Because I have asked him for about 5 years now to teach me how to drive stick, and he never did until a week before I left so I’m a little nervous to drive around Pamplona.”
On the court Novak is expecting to have to score the ball a little more than he did in college and, surprise, surprise, add leadership to his new team. Douglass is excited about developing his offensive game even more in the European “free play” style that his team runs. He is also curious to see what taking the court with two big men in the post is like. He takes a jab at former Michigan teammate Jordan Morgan, teasing that “finally a seven footer I’ve always dreamed of playing with. No offense J-Mo haha”.
Leaving it Behind
Stu and Zack both note that leaving certain parts of the college game behind will be one of the hardest parts about being a pro. They both make it clear that the unparalleled atmosphere of Big 10 basketball likely won’t get matched in Europe.
Zack says he’ll miss the packed-house, high-stakes games but more than anything, “I’m going to miss the people at Michigan the most,” he said. “My teammates, the coaches and our staff. We had a lot of fun behind the scenes that people don’t get to see.”
Last summer, we had the chance to interview Stu in Ann Arbor and then wrote an article called: The house that Stu and Zack built, which was a spinoff off the well-known phrase often heard around the Crisler Center that says the building is the House that Cazzie (Russell) built.
Well, if Cazzie built the house, then at the very least, Stu and Zack get credit for the renovations. These two came to Michigan as boys and left as men.
Douglass reflects on his accomplishments by saying, “I’m satisfied with what I could do for the team in regards to sacrificing the things I did in order to fill a roll we needed in order to bring this program along and win a Big Ten title. I’m satisfied with the way I saw myself grow as a leader and person.” He feels like he didn’t fulfill his promise from an offensive standpoint but took great comfort in knowing that he gave it everything he had, every time out on the court.
Novak gives his own version of the mark he left at Michigan: “Over the last four years, we did one heck of a job bringing the program back to where it belongs. Obviously, you’d like to have done a few things differently, but realistically I am more than pleased with how the time went.”
Both players made it quite obvious that the experience they got playing for and studying under John Beilein and his tremendous staff of assistants was more than they ever could have hoped for. “The number one thing I took away from my time at Michigan was learning how to be a leader and a more mature person,” Douglass commented. “I grew a lot over the years.”
Novak provides a public thank you of sorts that comes straight from the heart: “Throughout the last 4 years, they’ve been a major part in shaping me to be the person I will be for the rest of my life. You don’t become a Michigan Man just by stepping into some classrooms and gyms. It takes having the right people around you, constantly mentoring and helping you learn. Those guys [coaches] taught me the qualities it will take for me to be successful for whatever I want to do in life. I couldn’t be more appreciative of the people I got to work with on a daily basis over the last four years.”
In Good Hands?
Michigan basketball has now entered the post-Stu & Zack era. This looks to be a time filled with promise, top-tier talent, and hopefully Final 4’s.
Wise words come from both former captains on what it will take to return this team to meaningful basketball in late March/early April. “This team is very talented,” Zack notes. “I believe they have the people in place to turn that individual talent into a great team. Our teams were never going to beat many people on paper, but we always played well together. If this year’s team can do that, they can achieve whatever they want to.”
Douglass gives his own and very similar thoughts to the players still on campus: “Top to bottom the raw physical talent of this team now will be better than last years, but that’s not always what’s important. It takes a lot of mental talent to understand the system both offensively and defensively. The key to this year’s team is to be able to mesh that physical talent and to grow the mental talent of the new guys. It will also be very important for some guys to sacrifice in areas that they won’t want to.”
In other words: we all know you can score and run the floor, but you have to play defense, dive for loose balls, be a team-first player – embrace all of the qualities that defined Stu and Zack throughout the years, all of the qualities of what it means to play for a Beilein team. Then and only then will this team reach their goals.
Filling that leadership void will be one of the keys to watching Michigan’s season unfold. Douglass thinks that team-first guy Josh Bartelstein will emerge as one of the true leaders of this team in his senior season. “I really feel like Josh is coming into his own as a leader,” Stu points out. “He’s not the most outspoken guy, but he is the best teammate I’ve ever had. The kid is selfless in all regards. He’s got your back at all times, and he is starting to figure out how to be a good leader without having to play 30+ minutes, and that is crucial.”
He also notes that it’s not all about leading the way on the court or in the huddle all the time that matters most. Douglass provides some unique insight when saying that, “Coaches know a lot about basketball, but they also need input from their players in order to help the team grow. It was huge for our team’s success last year to have Zack and I be those guys that went to the coaches and challenged them on certain things and let them know how the team really feels about a certain aspect of the offense or even little things like dress code. College basketball is full of pressure and stress. It is vital to have guys talk to coaches openly in order to reach compromises on certain things to minimize stress, and I believe Josh can really be a guy to step into that roll.”
Having a leader like Bartelstein on the roster, keeping the team loose yet focused, could pay huge dividends for this team come spring.
Soak it in
We finished our interviews with Stu and Zack by asking them that if they could pass one ongoing message on to the team they left behind, what that would be.
To read their answers is truly a thing of beauty. I won’t mix my words in with theirs. I’ll let two of the all-time Michigan greats bring this story home.
Stu: “I have regrets when it comes to how I performed statistically speaking, but I can live with that. What you can’t live down is the regret of letting your team down. You don’t want to look back and wish you had given more effort or been a better teammate or been a better example for the others. You’re going to miss a lot of shots and make a lot of defensive mistakes in your career, but selfishness by not giving your best effort is one thing you won’t be able to live down.”
Zack: “Take some time to sit back and take in the moment every now and then. It’s so easy to get caught up in the middle of a long season and lose sight of the fact you get to play basketball for Michigan in front of sold out stadiums and national television audiences. Embrace the experience and make the most of it. You only get to do it once.”