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March 3, 2010
By Bill Hass
Those who doubt that need only look at Duke senior Brian Zoubek.
A foot injury hampered his development for more than half his college career, raising questions that he would ever make a significant, consistent contribution.
“You do have those doubts and it’s frustrating, especially when it’s something you can’t control with injuries,” Zoubek said. “You kind of keep going.
“When I looked at my situation I didn’t want to give up or transfer out or stop playing or anything like that. I wanted to keep going and see what I could do and I’ve been rewarded a little bit for sticking with it.”
Duke heads into a showdown with Maryland tonight in College Park. Should Maryland win, the teams will be tied at 12-3 in the ACC with one game remaining. If the Blue Devils win, they will clinch first place and the top seed for the ACC Tournament next week.
“It means a lot, especially to our seniors,” Zoubek said. “For our four years we haven’t won the regular season and it has definitely been our goal every season. To finally have it within our grasp – we just need to take it.
“It’s a championship-quality game and that’s the reason you come to schools like Duke and Maryland. It’s a lot of energy, a lot of hostility, they feed off of it well and it’s going to be a tough environment. We’re excited about it and it’s the best feeling in the world to go into somebody else’s court and beat them.”
Zoubek expects the Terps, who have won five straight since they lost 77-56 in Durham on Feb. 13, to be confident and well-prepared. And they will likely pay more attention to the 7-1, 260-pound Zoubek, who had the best overall game of his career with 16 points and 17 rebounds in the last meeting.
Maryland coach Gary Williams said he has to figure out a way to combat the size and offensive rebounding skills of Duke’s interior players – Zoubek, Lance Thomas and Mason and Miles Plumlee.
“They’re an interesting team in that everybody talks about the big three (Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith) and rightfully so,” Williams said. “They’re all averaging about 18 points a game. But their inside players, including Zoubek, are averaging as a unit right around 21, 22 points a game. That’s really a good addition to your offense.”
Zoubek takes such compliments in stride.
“It’s just another thing that they have to work with when they’re looking at us.,” he said. “I’m glad that I can affect somebody like that. I feel really good that I’m able to help my team in this way and stay on the court for a significant period of time.”
Zoubek’s breakout game against the Terps started a four-game stretch in which he scored 39 points and grabbed 49 rebounds. Against Virginia Tech, he recorded 16 more rebounds, giving him his top two career marks on the boards within a span of three games.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski said there’s no question Zoubek’s play has helped the Blue Devils (25-4 overall) become a better team in February.
“Not too many kids in the league have had over 15 rebounds a couple times in a game,” he said. “That’s really good basketball. His defense has been outstanding and his ability to help our perimeter get open has also been very good. He’s really playing great basketball right now.”
(Note: Ed Davis of North Carolina had 15 or more rebounds four times, Al-Farouq Aminu of Wake Forest three times, Dwayne Collins of Miami twice and Gani Lawal of Georgia Tech twice. But Zoubek is the only player to do it twice in conference play.)
Now, Zoubek won’t dazzle anyone with his overall averages of 5.7 points and 7.0 rebounds. He’s still prone to the occasional game like his last outing – no points and four rebounds against Virginia – but when the Blue Devils have really needed him, he has delivered.
“I feel really good,” Zoubek said. “I struggled a little bit the other night but I’ve been pretty solid and have been stepping up my game. I’m getting more confidence and I just want to carry that through.”
Zoubek, from Haddonfield, N.J., began his career with 18 points (still his career high) against Columbia in his first game. Things got a lot tougher in ACC play and when his freshman year ended, he had averaged 7.3 minutes, 3.1 points and 2.2 rebounds.
Then, in the summer before his sophomore season, he broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot and had surgery. Zoubek was able to play when the season began, but injured the bone again and missed nine games before finishing the season. He averaged 10.5 minutes, 3.8 points and 3.5 rebounds.
More surgery followed and another summer of developing his game was lost. He fought through the recovery in his junior season, with his averages creeping up to 11.9 minutes, 4.1 points and 3.7 rebounds. And while his game wasn’t progressing as much as he wanted, Zoubek found ways to contribute.
“Definitely doing the dirty work,” he said. “I would concentrate on my defense and rebounding and, on offense, setting screens, getting other guys open and playing off other guys. Those were things I could do when other things were not going well.”
Finally healthy this past summer, Zoubek was able to devote work to his game. A lot of it was dull stuff, exercising with large plastic bands, doing leg presses with weights, not to mention running and more running, with everything designed to increase the leg strength he had lost by being off his feet so much.
“Those things aren’t exactly fun,” he said, “but I knew that was what I had to do to be successful and to be able to hold my own. Just keeping that in mind the whole time and putting the frustration I’ve had into workouts really helps.”
Zoubek said he has confidence that his foot and his legs will stand up to the rigors of college basketball. His minutes have increased to an average of 16.7 per game and he has become a smarter player to avoid foul trouble.
Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said Zoubek gives Duke a dimension beyond its three-headed scoring monster with his ability to set screens, protect the front of the rim defensively and get his hands on a lot of loose balls for put-backs.
“He’s a guy that’s a load to block out, I mean a load to block out,” Greenberg said. “If he turns sideways and wedges you and has his hands up, there’s a good chance the ball is going to come to him.
“He has a very well-defined role and he’s really embraced that role and it seems like they’ve empowered him the last two weeks to where he’s even becoming a kind of a missing piece to their puzzle in terms of having a fourth guy who really has a consistent effect on their success.”
Krzyzewski admires the way Zoubek has kept battling.
“The main thing is... we never lost the belief that he could be a contributing player to our program,” Krzyzewski said. “Until this year, he’s had a rough go of it, injury-wise. He never made any excuses; that’s what I love. I’m glad to see he’s being paid off for handling his situation at the highest level.”
Krzyzewski added that Zoubek doesn’t do things to beat himself on the court, primarily because of his knowledge of basketball and game plans.
“Brian is not going to fight himself, he’s going to compete against the opponent and try to fit himself into what our whole team is doing,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s dependable. He’s not going to play great all the time, but he’s going to give you a great effort all the time.”
With the number of games in his career beginning to dwindle, Zoubek wants to make sure he and fellow seniors Scheyer and Thomas end with a strong finish.
“I think we have to keep up our play on defense and rebounding, especially,” he said of his team. “And then I’d like to see us get into a little bit better flow on offense, have more poise out there, take our time. A lot of time people rush shots and we get out of our game a little bit. If we can have a little more maturity in that area, I think we’ll go far.
“I ‘m going to make sure I do everything in my power to help with that.”
If he does, there may be more rewards coming his way.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March, 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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