Despite many fans being disappointed that Marquette didn’t make the NCAA tournament, hope was coming in highly rated recruits Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews, and the jewel of the class, athletic point guard Dominic James.
“When I first played with those guys, I knew they would be special,” Novak said. “These guys would bring a fresh feel to the program, with a ton of talent, and they would make people forget about the past.”
Over the summer, Novak prepared himself knowing he would be one of the main guys this season. He worked on creating his own shot, and focused on playing defense during pick-up games.
“I got in the gym and worked hard, knowing that I was going to be one of the team leaders,” Novak said.
In a case of déjà vu, Marquette showed that the future was bright again by winning the Great Alaska Shootout. In the overtime victory over defending NIT champions South Carolina, Novak had 28 points, and won the Tournament MVP.
“It was exciting competing on a high level again,” Novak said. “We had so many people come to Alaska and support us, making it a great experience.”
Even after the performance in Alaska, the game a few weeks later at the Bradley Center shocked the college basketball world. After being predicted to finish 12th in the Big East before the season, Marquette manhandled Big East power Connecticut 94-79 in their Big East debut, with Novak playing the game of his life.
“People should cherish Steve Novak’s performance,” Marquette head coach Tom Crean said at the post game press conference. “This is a special night in the program’s history.”
“For me, I was very excited to prove the doubters wrong,” Novak said. “It was exciting to know we could beat anybody and proved that we belonged in the Big East.”
Novak and Marquette built on this game, winning two out of three on their first Big East road trip, including a key win over NCAA tournament team Seton Hall. Novak had 25 points and nine rebounds in the Seton Hall game, and scored 24 points against rival DePaul.
After coming home, Novak had one more magical moment left in the bag against archrival Notre Dame. With 0.8 seconds to go, Novak hit a fade away jumper over Irish guard Kyle McAlarney to give Marquette the 66-64 win.
“Novak’s a great player and hit a great shot at a great time,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said after the game.
“At the end of the game, you just visualize that type of thing happening,” Novak said. “It was a real exciting time, beating one of our rivals.”
Then, injury threatened to curtail a successful Marquette season once again. In the Sunday practice after the Notre Dame, Novak sprained his ankle, a situation eerily similar to that of Travis Diener a year ago.
This time around, the injury would limit Novak, but the team would press on, defeating DePaul in the rematch and playing #10 Pittsburgh close in a tough 77-71 loss on the road.
“This season, the team had much more depth and was much more solid,” said Novak. “We had guys ready to step right in, and had much better chemistry.”
Marquette cemented themselves as a NCAA Tournament team in a mid-February home stand, defeating #17 Georgetown and #9 Pittsburgh in the rematch, a heated contest after a questionable play injured the shoulder of James in the first game, knocking him out for a key stretch of that game. Novak had 19 points in the Georgetown game, and 27, including a key late game three against Pittsburgh.
“Those were two huge games that catapulted us to the end of the season,” Novak said. “Those games proved we were a top 25 team even though we weren’t ranked.”
Marquette would win two of their last three regular season games to finish their inaugural season in the Big East 10-6, and winning 20 regular season games for the first time since the 2002-2003 season.
Despite a hard-fought loss in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament to Georgetown, Marquette knew they would be returning to the NCAA Tournament again. They received a #7 seed in the Oakland regional and a first round match-up against Alabama in the San Diego pod.
“There is nothing like actually playing in the NCAA Tournament,” Novak told Marquette Hoops after hearing their name called on Selection Sunday.
In another parallel with the 2001-2002 team, Marquette lost a hard fought game to the more experienced Alabama squad in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, with Novak stunningly missing an open three pointer that would have tied the game with less than 10 seconds remaining.
Even with that disappointment, Novak earned numerous postseason awards. He was named unanimous first team All Big East, along with UConn’s Rudy Gay and Villanova’s Allen Ray and Randy Foye.
“It’s a great honor to be in the class with those guys,” Novak said. “To look back at that and see your name in that company will always make me proud.”
At Marquette’s end of the season award banquet, Novak received three of the most prestigious awards given by Marquette: the Hank Raymonds Sportsmanship Award, the Bart Miller Standard of Excellence Award, and the Most Valuable Player Award.
“Steve Novak has been the best teammate I ever played with,” said James, the Big East Rookie of the Year. “He would always give me credit after I set him up for an open shot.”
“There wasn’t a play we drew up the last four years that did not involve Steve,” Crean said.
Novak is currently preparing for his NBA career, already helping his draft stock with a strong performance at the Portsmouth Invitational, including a 25-point, nine-rebound game the final day. On the website draftexpress.com, they project Novak to be drafted by the Knicks with the 32nd pick, just two slots outside the first round. With a strong performance in Orlando at the NBA Draft Camp, Novak could potentially make himself a first round pick.
“I want to go to the Draft Camp and continue to play my game and not force things,” Novak said. “At Portsmouth, I had a good experience, showing that I can play no matter the level of basketball.”
Steve Novak leaves Marquette having left the fans with numerous memories, from the perfect OT in the second round game against Missouri in the 2003 NCAA Tournament, to his 30 points at #4 Louisville his sophomore season, and his standout games against UConn and Notre Dame this past season. He ranks ninth in career scoring at Marquette with 1,567 points and is the school’s all-time leading three-point shooter in both percentage and makes, and as the school’s all time leader in free throw proficiency.
“Playing at Marquette has been a dream come true,” Novak said. “Throughout my four years, I’ve met some unbelievable guys and I’ve truly enjoyed my time here.”