ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Zack Novak has a pretty good idea what kind of reception he'll face when he takes the court Sunday at Michigan State.
"Awful," the Michigan senior said with a slight smile. "Yeah, I'm not very liked."
As his college career winds down, fans all over are taking note of Novak's scrappy style. From Arkansas to Ohio, he's been showered with taunts and insults — attention that is in some ways a compliment to the Wolverines' three-year captain. The 6-foot-4 Novak isn't the quickest Wolverine, and he sometimes seems woefully undersized, especially when he's playing forward and mixing it up with the other team's big men.
But there's no denying the contribution he's made at Michigan over these last four seasons.
"There's one picture where he got hit at Illinois, I think it might've been his freshmen year, and he was bleeding all down his face," teammate Stu Douglass said. "He loves that picture. That pretty much encapsulates everything about that kid."
It's easy to understand how Novak became the Michigan player opposing fans love to hate. His enthusiasm is on display every game, whether he's chasing after a loose ball or trying to fire up his teammates in a huddle. He's the type of player fans can't stand losing to.
"That's all right," Novak said. "If I was in the stands, I'd be yelling at me, too."
Occasionally, Novak's hustle borders on reckless. At Arkansas last month, he was rushing back to prevent an easy basket in transition. Novak took a wild swing at the ball but ended up hitting B.J. Young's head instead, sending the Razorback crashing to the ground. The incensed crowd called for an ejection, but Novak was allowed to keep playing, booed whenever he touched the ball.
With about 19,000 new enemies looking on, Novak kept making big shots, finishing with 17 points and helping Michigan stage a dramatic late rally that fell just short in a 66-64 loss.
Last weekend, it was the Ohio State fans giving Novak grief. On Sunday, he'll play at Michigan State when the 23rd-ranked Wolverines face the ninth-ranked Spartans.
It's to the point where Novak can compare the hostility of different arenas. The worst one?
"For me personally? Indiana," he said. "Definitely Indiana."
Novak is from Chesterton, Ind., and he made an immediate impact as a freshman at Michigan, starting 22 games and helping the Wolverines reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in over a decade. He was a captain the following season as a sophomore.
Despite his plucky persona on the court, Novak does more than just dive on the floor. As a senior, he's been one of Michigan's most efficient offensive players. He's averaging 9.2 points per game and shooting 49 percent from the field — 42 percent from 3-point range.
The game Wednesday night was typical for Novak. He scored 13 points on only five shots and tied for the team lead with five rebounds.
When Indiana cut Michigan's 20-point lead to two with 12:53 remaining, Novak made a 3-pointer to start a 9-2 run for the Wolverines. They eventually won 68-56.
"We were struggling," coach John Beilein said. "And he hit a beauty. We were trying to get him open shots after that. They know he can shoot, too. They didn't give him too many looks."
No matter how much he may aggravate opposing crowds, Novak doesn't seem to have many problems with the players he's competing with. Even Young, the Arkansas guard who was clobbered on that fast break, didn't show any hard feelings.Comment on this story
"It was a pretty hard foul. I didn't think he was trying to foul me that hard," Young said. "Novak's a good guy. I'm not tripping."
With Michigan in the thick of the Big Ten title race, it's a little early for Novak to reflect on his most memorable moments with the Wolverines, but he'll leave quite a legacy behind — one that can be measured at least in part by how he's been treated by opposing fans.
Their ire makes perfect sense to him.
"They all think I belong up there with them — just looking at me," Novak said. "It's fine."