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Zoubek’s rise to prominence bodes well for Blue Devils

Last season, Brian Zoubek’s minutes performed a surprising disappearing act down the stretch. But this year, the senior center has performed a much more impressive magic trick: resurrecting his career just in the nick of time.

Through the first three months of this year, Zoubek’s performances could be described as average at best. The 7-foot-1 center saw limited action off the bench, playing more than 20 minutes only three times in the team’s first 24 games. He averaged less than five points and about six rebounds per game during that period.

Those numbers showed only slight improvement from the center’s junior campaign, when Zoubek started strong but faded in the second half of the season, finishing with only 4.1 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. But the senior was determined not to let his last year at Duke end the same way as his junior campaign.

Things changed for Zoubek when head coach Mike Krzyzewski inserted him into the starting lineup Feb. 13 against Maryland. In a truly vintage performance, Zoubek scored 16 points, grabbed 17 boards—eight on the offensive glass—and helped lead Duke to a dominating victory that arguably spurred its late-season run to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And he has not let up since.

Over the Blue Devils’ last 10 games, Zoubek has played easily the best basketball of his career, averaging double-digit rebounds and over six points per game.

“At the end of [the Maryland game] I realized I didn’t want to step back from that. I didn’t want to regress,” Zoubek said. “I didn’t want to ever not play that strong again.”

What’s more, a multitude of points could be attributed to Zoubek’s hustle even if he didn’t put the ball in the basket himself, thanks to the center creating second chances on the offensive glass, passing out of the post or setting screens for 3-point shooters.

It has been nothing short of a magical renaissance, just as the senior’s career seemed destined to end anticlimactically.

“Brian’s playing outstanding basketball for us, no doubt about it,” Krzyzewski said after Zoubek turned in a double-double against Tulsa in late February. “Brian understands his value whether he’s scoring or not…. When you’re a veteran you’re more apt to do that, and that’s what he’s done.”

So how can this Zoubekian renaissance be explained? Health is certainly one factor. Much like fellow seven-footers—the NBA’s Yao Ming immediately comes to mind—Zoubek was hindered by foot injuries throughout his first two seasons at Duke, which not only kept him off the floor during game time but also impeded his progress and conditioning during the offseason. Indeed, this season is arguably the first in which Zoubek has been fully healthy from day one.

“It’s been a long process for me, and a lot of hard work,” Zoubek said of overcoming injuries. “It’s great that people actually realize I can play now. When you know you can play the whole time… It’s frustrating.”

Not to be overlooked, though, is the center’s improved ability to avoid early foul trouble. Earlier in his career, Zoubek was prone to picking up quick reach-in fouls. The center was also quick to leave his feet at inopportune times when trying to block shots, which, combined with his 7-foot-1 frame, forced referees to blow the whistle even when there was actually minimal contact.

In his starting role, though, Zoubek has minimized his fouls enough to find a rhythm early in games. The senior has not fouled out at all during his late-season streak (and only committed four fouls in a game four times), while he fouled out six times when coming off the bench earlier in the season.

“I think it’s the refs being more comfortable with me, and me being comfortable with the flow of the game,” Zoubek said of his decreased foul trouble.

And with dominant big men such as Purdue’s JaJuan Johnson and Baylor’s Ekpe Udoh lurking in the South Region, the Blue Devils will need Zoubek to remain on the court. And his continued production—offensively, defensively and on the glass—could serve to take pressure off of Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith.

Zoubek, though, is confident he can find one more trick up his (very large) sleeve.

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