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Big men peaking at perfect time

Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas came up with key rebounds and defensive stops against Baylor Sunday.
Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas came up with key rebounds and defensive stops against Baylor Sunday.

They’re the Other Two.

Last Sunday, facing a formidable Baylor frontcourt in the Elite 8, those Other Two made two of the biggest plays of the game with the clock ticking steadily toward zero. Brian Zoubek drew a charge on the Bears’ Quincy Acy, allowing the Blue Devils to go on a 15-3 run and take the lead for good. Three minutes later, Lance Thomas followed a Kyle Singler 3-point attempt, finishing with a tip-dunk-and-one that gave Duke an even larger cushion in the contest. Jon Scheyer stopped just short of calling it the biggest play of the game.

And now, Thomas and Zoubek have the Final Four they came for.

Much has been made of the Blue Devils’  five-year absence from the Final Four. Fair or not, when measured by the Duke standards of the last couple decades, those five years seem like a bona fide drought. With their crucial play in the final minutes against Baylor, though, the two seniors secured the Blue Devils a trip to Indianapolis, and the national championship now hangs in the balance for Duke.

“We feel great about what we’ve done so far, but as I’ve said many a time, we don’t want it to end,” Zoubek said Tuesday, a little more than 24 hours before taking off for Indiana. “Winning against West Virginia and having a chance to play for a national championship—that’s what you dream of as a basketball player your entire life.”

Thomas and Zoubek are often overshadowed by the “Big Three,” the trio of Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith who snag the lion’s share of Duke’s points. The two big men have faced more than their fair share of adversity and animosity during their Duke careers after coming out of high school as highly rated prospects. And both have truly found their place on this year’s Blue Devil squad.

While setting screens, playing solid defense and rebounding will never garner quite the attention that alley-oops and back-breaking 3-pointers do, Duke simply would not be where it is, playing for a berth in the NCAA championship game, without those very contributions from a certain two seniors.

“I think people [on this team] have grown into knowing the value of their roles,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Like, for Brian, he knows even if he scores four points, it could be because of him that we win the game. Lance, the same way.”

Much of their contribution in the NCAA Tournament has come in the form of crashing the offensive boards. In fact, over the first two weekends, the Blue Devils averaged an absurd 15.8 offensive rebounds per game. Those boards are critical, especially considering Duke hasn’t been a particularly good shooting team in terms of field goal percentage, where it checks in at a mediocre 43.9 percent.

Consider this: The point differential in Sunday’s final score was seven points. The tally for second-chance points? Baylor, 16. Duke, 23.

“They’ve carried us, you know, especially on the boards, Brian having 14 boards the last game and Lance having nine the game before,” Scheyer said.

And as two of the most veteran players on the team, Thomas and Zoubek exert their influence through sheer will and senior leadership, the latter a fleeting commodity in today’s college basketball environment. In one instance, Zoubek picked up his fifth foul Sunday with 2:18 showing on the game clock, the Final Four on the line and his team up six. The center headed back to the Duke bench, TV cameras trained on him.

Zoubek pointed at replacement Miles Plumlee, looked him straight in the eye and implored him to take over where he had left off. It was not unlike a general sending his troops off to war.

“The thing that was going through my head was, ‘I fouled out,’ and I didn’t want that to be the last thing that I did in my Duke career,” Zoubek recalled. “I knew that Miles could take care of business. I wanted to make sure that he knew that I believed in him, and that he could have no letdown when he got in. And he did a great job.”

A few minutes later, Thomas wove between the Baylor players and dunked the Singler miss, despite being stymied by the Bears’ long and athletic front line for nearly the entire game. No matter—Thomas came up with the biggest play when it mattered the most.

“We’ve been underrated and looked over my whole career, and sometimes we may have deserved it,”  Zoubek said of the Duke teams he has been a part of over the past four years. He may as well have been referring to Thomas and himself.

But in his last year as a Blue Devil, the now-fully-healthy Zoubek has finally given Duke the legitimate center presence so many have said it lacked since Shelden Williams graduated in 2006.

Even beyond that, Zoubek said that after having been through the public’s abuse, the media’s criticism and some devastating losses the past four years, he and Thomas understand where they need to be on the court and what kind of attitude they need to adopt in every situation. These seniors are determined to make the most of their last chance at a national title run, and so far, they’re doing just fine.


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