Spartans, Wolverines adhere to their captains
You can hang around every college basketball team in the nation, but you're not going to find many better "glue" guys than the two you'll see on the floor Tuesday (7 p.m. ET on ESPN) when Michigan State plays Michigan in Ann Arbor.
It's not easy to measure the true value of these so-called "glue" guys. There's no statistic that shows characteristics such as heart, toughness and behind-the-scenes leadership.
But it's a crucial part of success in college basketball. You know it when you see it, hear it and feel it.
And, clearly, Michigan State's Draymond Green and Michigan's Zack Novak are two of the best.
They are seniors who are team captains for the third straight year. Green is the gregarious, infectious voice of the Spartans. Novak is the gutty, overachieving heart and soul of the Wolverines.
Both must try to pick up their teams after trap-game upsets on the road Saturday. Michigan State had its 15-game winning streak snapped by Northwestern. Michigan is coming off a lackluster effort against Iowa.
For Green and the Spartans, there's extra motivation because they lost both times to the Wolverines last season.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is calling Green "my voice" and "my personality" these days. It's not easy to live up to Izzo's lofty standards when it comes to leadership. He was spoiled by the quintessential leader Mateen Cleaves early in his coaching career.
But a week before practice started in October, Green received an early morning text from his coach that was quite revealing. Izzo said the message was to point out that some things Green had been doing in terms of leadership were "Magic (Johnson) and Mateenish."
"That message was special to me," Green said. "It told me some things I've been doing good, some things that I need to keep on improving at, and that the road that I'm going, I can be mentioned in a group with those guys."
Green, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward, has averaged a double-double (15.8 points and 10.1 rebounds per game) while leading Michigan State to a 15-3 record.
As much as anything, improved team chemistry is responsible for the Spartans' comeback after they failed to live up to high expectations last season. A year ago, Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers were seniors, but they weren't the vocal leaders that Izzo prefers and demands. Green tried to lead, but it wasn't as easy with Lucas and Summers above him in class.
In the end, the Spartans had a fractured locker room and many disappointing losses.
This season, it's Green's team. He has helped pull this group back together, and it shows more often than not on game day.
"When you're trying to lead as a sophomore or junior, you have the juniors and seniors that may know more than you," Green said. "So they don't have to look to you for everything. When you're a senior leader, everyone is looking to you. You can't have any down days."
Green's versatility — he can score, rebound, pass, block shots, etc. — is what stands out about him.
But the intangibles are why he has won the team's Antonio Smith Glue and Guts award the past two years. (He shared the honor last season with Delvon Roe.)
"I feel like he's coach Izzo sometimes," junior center Derrick Nix said of Green. "He knows every position, every play. He's flawless when it comes to basketball and leadership.
"You know how (some) seniors can be, they've just got to score every point? He ain't like that. He's gonna do what he's got to do for us to win."
While Green personally fills up the stat sheet, you have to look deeper to recognize Novak's importance to the Wolverines
He's fourth on the team in scoring (9.3 points per game), third in rebounds (4.6 per game) and third in assists (2.1 per game).
But when reporters asked Penn State coach Patrick Chambers questions about Michigan sophomore Tim Hardaway Jr. after a recent game, Chambers turned the conversation to Novak.
"I know you want me to talk about (Tim) Hardaway, but Novak does so much for their team," Chambers said. "If you ask me who scares me most, probably Novak."
Novak is the one sacrificing his body to take charges. He's the one diving on the floor for loose balls. He does all the little things, which is how he was coached by his father, Dave Novak, as a youth.
Dave Novak's AAU team in Chesterton, Ind., rarely worked on offensive drills. It was all about defense, rebounding, hustling and scrapping.
In retrospect, Zack Novak was, arguably, the most underrated player in the nation coming out of high school in 2008. He had no scholarship offers for much of his senior year. Most coaches believed he lacked the size to play up-front and the quickness and ball-handling skills to play in the backcourt.
But Michigan coach John Beilein has a knack for finding diamond-in-the-rough recruits, and Novak is a classic example. Novak has far exceeded expectations because of his work ethic and intelligence.
"He's the ultimate 'glue' guy in the Big Ten," teammate Stu Douglass said.
Novak, a 6-4, 210-pound guard who had to defend power forwards earlier in his career because of Michigan's talent deficiency, isn't the type of star who typically gets his jersey retired by a school.
But he is, without a doubt, just as deserving.
Novak has played a major role in rebuilding this downtrodden Michigan basketball program.
"We knew we had to build it back," he said. "It's a fun time."
If not for Novak's intangibles, the Wolverines would not be where they are today. He has made that much of an impact during his four-year career.
"We've got a team full of blue-collar workers who really want to win," Novak said.
They learned from watching him.