Bill Hass on the ACC: Duke Calls on 'Zooooo' to Set the Defensive Tone Inside
March 15, 2009
By Bill Hass
ATLANTA – It became a “Zooooooo” out there during the 2009 ACC Tournament Championship Game.
That’s the cry the Duke faithful sent up each time 7-foot-1 junior Brian Zoubek entered the game for the Blue Devils against Florida State Sunday in the Georgia Dome.
The statistics show that Zoubek never took a shot and played only nine minutes, eight of them coming in the first half. But his inside defense set the tone for the Blue Devils and was a big reason they were able to turn back Florida State, 79-69, and cut down the nets for the 17th time at an ACC Tournament (tying them with North Carolina for the most titles).
“I’m glad that in the biggest game of my life I could play the best nine minutes of my life,” he said, smiling broadly while wearing his championship T-shirt and hat.
There were plenty of reasons Duke won, starting with 29 points from Jon Scheyer. That capped a three-day performance in which he scored 65 points, hit 16 of 31 shots, 12 of 25 3-pointers, 21 of 25 free throws and played 113 out of 120 minutes with only five turnovers. He earned the Everett Case Award as the tournament’s most valuable player.
After Florida State cut a big deficit to 42-36 in the second half, Scheyer hit the game’s biggest shot, a 3-pointer with 11:42 remaining. Moments later, he was fouled on a 3-point attempt and swished the three free throws to push the lead to 48-38, providing a cushion Duke held for the rest of the game.
Gerald Henderson was spectacular with 27 points and Kyle Singler added 14, including three straight 3-pointers to get Duke rolling in the first half. Nolan Smith continued his fine play off the bench and Lance Thomas grabbed eight first-half rebounds, six on the offensive board.
But Zooooo made a significant impact.
Zoubek’s playing time varies according to the size of the team Duke is playing. He played an uneventful five minutes against Boston College Friday and a single minute against Maryland Saturday, but knew he would get some time against Florida State’s big lineup.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski said the coaches talked to Zoubek Saturday night and again Sunday morning because he might play a key role against the Seminoles’ 7-1 Solomon Alabi.
“We just told him to be ready, we’re going to use you, and he came through,” Krzyzewski said.
Alabi went to work right away, scoring twice inside in the game’s first three minutes. Zoubek entered the game before the first time out and immediately made his presence felt. Alabi made a move, put up a shot and Zoubek blocked it.
“I think it will affect anybody’s confidence,” Zoubek said. “He’s not used to it. I think that was huge. He got a little discouraged and wasn’t as aggressive going toward the basket. That’s the story right there.”
For the rest of the half, every time Alabi went off the floor, Zoubek also went out. When Alabi returned, so did Zoubek. Every time the 240-pound Alabi tried to establish position, the 280-pound Zoubek was in his way. Alabi’s 12-footer missed because Zoubek forced him outside. Another shot hit the side of the backboard because of Zoubek’s defense.
In the meantime, Duke’s offense was taking control and extending a lead that reached 35-21 by halftime. Unable to establish anything inside, the Seminoles made only five field goals in the first half, three of them 3-pointers.
“When he didn’t have the ball I made sure I pushed him off the block as far as possible,” Zoubek said. “Once he had the ball, (I wanted to) just stay behind him and keep my hands up. I’m pretty heavy and I’m pretty strong, so he can’t get around me that well and it’s hard to shoot over me.”
Zoubek also found time to grab five rebounds in the first half.
“They (the coaches) knew rebounding was going to be huge and defending Alabi was going to be huge,” Zoubek said. “I figured to do both those things well and we were really strong on the boards today. And I think taking Alabi out of his game a little bit was also very important because he’s been playing really well.”
In the second half, Zoubek’s contributions were limited to one rebound and one highlight-reel save as he dove out of bounds (bowling over a video camera man in the process) to flip the ball back to a teammate.
“Coach always talks that it’s important for the big guys and for anybody to get us extra possessions,” he said. “That’s what I try to do, whether it’s getting offensive rebounds, getting steals and getting loose balls. Whatever you can do... especially in a championship game like this, one possession can make the difference.”
Krzyzewski stayed with a smaller lineup in the second half, even when Alabi returned. The freshman added one basket and four free throws without Zoubek’s presence.
“Solomon is a tall, slender youngster that doesn’t have the real strong, solid base,” said Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton. “It’s easy to push him off the block. Duke does a good job of bodying you up and pushing you off the block. A lot of the things that we tried to go to early, (Alabi) was pushed two or three steps off the block and we could not be very effective.”
Zoubek’s play did not go unnoticed by friend and foe.
“Oh, yeah. Zoo is a beast and this was a perfect matchup for him,” Thomas said. “He got to play somebody his size. He showed that he can actually play really well. We’re going to need that from him moving forward. He’s playing really good basketball right now and we expect more out of him.”
Douglas, who scored 28 points, agreed that not having an inside game changed things for the Seminoles.
“We were trying to get the ball into Solomon and they were pushing him outside the block, so it was kind of hard.” Douglas said. “Then they tried to deny me the ball, so we really didn’t have good spacing and it was easy for Duke to guard. Solomon probably wasn’t real comfortable when Zoubek came in because he’s another 7-footer out there.”
Each team will take its game to the NCAA Tournament next. Hamilton said he doesn’t want the Seminoles to forget about the loss in Florida State’s first championship game appearance because “it’s important to feel that pain.” Douglas said his team will learn as it has from every loss this season.
“Every time we’ve lost a game we’ve never lost the next one,” Douglas said. “So don’t start now.”
Duke, on the other hand, can’t let the euphoria carry over too much.
“It feels good now and we want to carry this over to the NCAA Tournament,” Singler said. “But we kind of have to forget about it because we’re in a different tournament now.”
As for Zoubek, he’ll wait to see the matchups and wonder how much he might play. He has adjusted to the uncertainty of playing time.
“It’s something you learn when you’re on the bench,” he said. “You have to be yelling at your guys when they’re out there on the court, otherwise you’re just sitting there getting cold and maybe not ready when they call upon you.
“You have to take advantage of your opportunities. We’ve played some small teams and I haven’t gotten as many opportunities as of late. As soon as you’ve got a big team and got the opportunity, you’ve got to take advantage of it.”
Perhaps the cries of “Zooooo” haven’t ended for Duke just yet.
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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