Blocking out the past

Senior Brian Zoubek’s breakout game came against Maryland three weeks ago, and the center has kept up his improved level of play since.
Senior Brian Zoubek’s breakout game came against Maryland three weeks ago, and the center has kept up his improved level of play since.

Flashing back to the start of the season, the picture looked bleak for Duke center Brian Zoubek as he entered his senior campaign.

Plagued by recurring foot injuries and struggling to earn consistent playing time through his first three years, Zoubek entered 2009 with paltry career averages of 4.1 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. Two players with only a year of combined experience between them—brothers Mason and Miles Plumlee—were slotted ahead of Zoubek and fellow senior Lance Thomas on the preseason depth chart.

Up until about a month ago, perhaps the thing Zoubek was best known for was not his play on the court but instead the bizarre “Z” handsign—inspired by the trademark gesture of a sci-fi cult in the stoner flick “Dude, Where’s My Car?”—that the Cameron Crazies flash whenever the 7-foot-1 center snares a rebound or swishes a free throw.

But over his past five contests, Zoubek’s rapid transition into a legitimate force on the glass and in the paint has spurred the emergence of a Duke team that is playing some of its best basketball of the year, just as the calendar turns to March.

Sparked by a superb performance with 16 points and a career-high 17 rebounds in a 77-56 thrashing of Maryland Feb. 13, Zoubek has gone on a tear that almost no one saw coming. Starting in each of those five games, Zoubek posted averages of 7.8 points and 10.6 rebounds, well exceeding his career numbers. But more important has been his strength on the offensive boards, bolstering the scoring attack of a team that relies heavily on the jump-shooting efforts of Nolan Smith, Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler.

With his 24 offensive rebounds during his recent stint in the starting lineup, Zoubek has played a key role in sustaining offensive possessions and facilitating second-chance opportunities. Looking closely at logs from the past five games, Zoubek’s impact on the offense becomes clear. Twenty-nine Duke points have been scored directly after Zoubek has secured an offensive rebound, with the scores coming off both tip-ins and kickouts to perimeter players.

Zoubek’s prowess on the offensive glass has accounted for nearly six additional Duke points per game—a crucial margin in close games like the Blue Devils’ wins against Miami and Virginia Tech, both of which were tight until the final minutes. And these stats haven’t just come against shoddy talent. Zoubek has stepped up against two of the best teams in the ACC in Maryland and Virginia Tech, while on an individual level, he turned in a strong game against potential NBA draftee Jerome Jordan of Tulsa.

Duke is lucky to have pulled off a feat that most programs would only dream of: discovering a serviceable center capable of crashing the boards buried deep on its own bench. The Blue Devils, as currently composed with a resurgent Zoubek, its “Big Three” wing players and deep frontcourt reserves, are finally discovering the balance inside and out that has largely eluded them since Shelden Williams graduated in 2006.

That all leaves one big question that has eluded Duke fans for the past four years—what has taken so long for Zoubek to develop into a starter?

There are plenty of theories circulating that purport to explain this. Some say that Duke’s coaching staff is not adept at developing post players, particularly when the team’s primary big man coach is former Duke point guard Steve Wojciechowski, who stands 5-foot-11. But when asked last week, Zoubek cited Wojciechowski as the biggest single influence on his development this season.

“He has been with me all four years,” Zoubek said. “While I have had some lows or didn’t exactly want to do all the work he was making me do, he was making me better, even if I might have hated the stuff.”

Another theory to explain Zoubek’s sluggish development has been due to his injuries. As the recent experiences of NBA centers Yao Ming and Zydrunas Ilgauskas and current UNC post player Tyler Zeller attest, human feet aren’t well engineered for the pounding a seven-foot basketball player applies to them. In a similar light, the foot injuries that have forced Zoubek under the knife twice shouldn’t be an indictment of his willingness to improve or a subpar level of fitness.

But at the end of the day, explanations aren’t nearly as relevant as the end result. The fact that Zoubek has become an integral component to Duke’s NCAA Tournament chances this year should make any of his past struggles irrelevant. Zoubek’s ascendance has given Duke as good of a chance entering the postseason as it has had in a long time. And if Duke’s emergent big man helps his team to a deep Tournament run, his late success will stand out for more than any silly stoner movie reference.


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