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The Seven-Footer No One Saw Coming

Duke is not normally a team with a lot of size and a deep rotation up front. Historically their best teams have had a single dominant big man (Ferry, Laettner, Brand, Boozer) rather than a swarm of bodies to throw at you. So it’s been a recurring theme this season we’ve heard ad nauseum: yes, Duke’s Big Three is amazing, but a deep post-season run would really be pinned to someone emerging from the front court. And with a scrappy 5’11” point guard in charge of coaching the big guys (which is another eye-rolling post altogether) it was a bit of a mystery if that was going to happen this season.

For much of the early part of the year the conventional wisdom went back and forth about which of the Plumlee brothers was to be the one to save the Devil’s post-season. They have both shown tantalizing flashes in games, and on rare occasions they’ve had a dominant forty minutes (Mason’s game against Wake jumps to mind). But with only a few games left in the regular season, it’s safe to say that neither has truly ‘emerged’ from their cocoons of promise.

There was an outside chance at the season’s inception that Lance Thomas could be the guy. Thomas, God bless em, is a good player. He is easy to root for. He plays with great effort, he’s developed a 15-17 foot shot this year, and he has become a dominant defender. His value on D is his versatility: he is wiry enough to play big men and quick enough to stay with guards in Duke’s perpetually switching defense. But Lance’s post game consists mostly of head faking and hoping to draw fouls. He is a good role player, but he is not the answer.

Enter Brian Zoubek.  I’m not sure anyone outside of his immediate family would have believed that Big Z was the dominant big guy Duke was looking for this year. But maybe, just maybe he is. Before this season he was mostly known as a space eater who’s only notable strength was the ability to pick up fouls -  sometimes while just waiting at the scorer’s table to check in. He’s often struggled to hold onto the ball and/or not bring it down where it can be knocked away. He’s not particularly quick (side note - someone needs to tell the Duke big guys that hedging out on the pick and roll is not the same as setting a pick. I’m just sayin’…) and we can all agree with a smirk on our faces that Zoubs is not a great leaper. But in the last three games he has been exactly what Duke needs - he’s been dominant.

Now granted the sample size of his three starts is small but take a look at these lines:

  • Maryland: 16 pts (7-10), 17 boards (8 off), 2 blocks in only 22 minutes
  • at Miami: 10 pts, 5 boards, 5 steals in 29 minutes (only 3 fouls let him stay on the floor)
  • Va Tech: only 3 pts, but 16 boards (8 off), 2 assists, 1 blk, 1 steal again 29 minutes b/c of 3 fouls

This from a guy who is the fifth option on offense and is probably number eight on the team when weighing talent. That is maximizing your ability. Say what you will about Zoubek’s athletic limitations (I already did) but he works incredibly hard on the court. He is also a great teammate. He’s active on the bench, he’s encouraging to whoever is on the court, and he’s always emotionally fired up to play. Even as he lost his starting gig to Miles this season, you never got the sense that he was down about it.

It will be interesting to see if Zoubek can continue his current hot streak. He’s often been able to be productive against small lineups and has struggled against athletic big men (note his 2 minutes played against Georgetown’s Greg Monroe, who logged all 40 minutes that game). But his confidence has got to be at an all-time high. And let’s not forget one other important tidbit: he has been healthy all year. Injuries to big guys are tough, and Zoubek has had more than his share over his career. It’s great to see hard work and a great attitude being rewarded. And it’s nice to see someone emerging from Duke’s front court with some hefty production. It’s exactly the kind of production that Duke will need if they are going to make a run at the Final Four.