The Duke Blue Devils have a ton of talented players. In the championship game victory over Butler, the “big three”—Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer, and Nolan Smith—combined to score 47 of the team’s 61 points.
No individual, though, was more important to Duke’s run to the title game than center Brian Zoubek.
Looking back on the past three years, he was also the least likely candidate to be the missing piece that would push a talented Duke squad over the top.
In his first three years with Duke, Zoubek’s struggles were obvious.
The 7'1", 260-pound center was a big presence in the paint that could alter shots, yet he was more of a liability on the floor.
He seemed to always be stumbling over his own feet, he couldn’t hold onto the basketball, and instead of going strong to the hoop he always looked uncomfortable with the ball, opting to pass back outside.
He had trouble getting up and down the court, made even worse by multiple surgeries to fix a broken foot. Because of his awkwardness and size, he would continually get into foul trouble as well.
It seemed more trouble to put him on the floor than he was worth.
Zoubek stuck it out though, and it paid off.
Duke has been in desperate need for a strong inside presence since Shelden Williams graduated in 2006.
Since Williams left, the Blue Devils have been severely lacking in rebounding, interior defense, and toughness. So just because of his sheer size Zoubek would always remain a thought, even if it was a thought buried deep in the back of head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s head.
The lack of an inside game could very well explain Duke’s lack of success in the NCAA Tournament recently.
The last time the Blue Devils won the championship was in 2001. Since then, the school had been a No. 1 seed four times but failed to reach the championship game every time.
Zoubek’s class has seen the team get bounced in the first round, second round, and Sweet 16—certainly not up to the standards and expectations set at Duke.
The team has lived and died by the three-pointer. It would seem that in the biggest games, more times than not they died by it. There was never any post presence that would corral in those misses or provide a solid, steady presence on offense when the team needed to stop shooting.
Quietly, Zoubek increased his minutes played per game, points per game average, rebounds per game average, blocked shots per game average, and his turnovers per game went down. They were never by large increments, but just enough for people to not give up hope on the big man, even if productivity seemed light years away at times.
This season, in his final collegiate year, Zoubek came in healthy and in shape.
He set career highs in games played, minutes played, points, and assists. He grabbed an astonishing four more rebounds per game and shot a career-high 63.5 percent from the field.
Even more important is that he did the most of his damage down the stretch.
From the start of the season, Nov. 13 through Feb. 10—a stretch of 24 games—Zoubek had played twenty minutes or more only three times.
He was given the opportunity to start against Maryland, however, in the team’s next game and he seized the moment, scoring a season-high 16 points and grabbing a season-high 17 rebounds in a 77-56 Duke victory, and has started every game since.
Since that game, Zoubek has averaged 6.6 points (more than two points higher than his career average of 4.1) and 10.1 rebounds per game (just under six more boards than his 4.3 career average). He grabbed double-digits in rebounds nine games out of 16 and recorded three double-doubles.
As the season went on, Zoubek gained more and more confidence. The Blue Devils also became a tougher team because of their newfound post presence.
While Singler, Scheyer, and Smith carried the brunt of the scoring load, Zoubek did all the dirty work: grabbing rebounds, setting screens to open up the shooters, altering and blocking shots on defense, and trapping the ball as well.
Without his increased production, without Zoubek stepping up to the challenge, Duke does not make it to the championship game.
Despite being in foul trouble for the majority of the game, they also wouldn’t have won it without him.
Six of Zoubek’s 10 rebounds in the title game were offensive, giving Duke second chances for points when their shooters failed to connect.
On Butler’s last offensive possession, Zoubek covered the inbounder and did a good job of sliding out and getting in Gordon Hayward’s face as he attempted a runner, altering the shot just enough so that it went long and hit the back part of the rim.
Zoubek then grabbed the rebound and didn’t lose the ball, sending him to the free throw line, where he would sink the first shot calmly, than miss the second intentionally to force Butler to make a long-last ditch heave rather than allow for them to send in a long inbounds pass, creating an easier shot.
It was a long journey for Zoubek, but in his senior season he finally produced at the level he knew he was capable of playing at.
He also gave Duke the strong, tough post presence it needed.
When they stood on the podium after the game, Zoubek held onto the trophy like he was never going to let it slip away from his grasp, just like he improved his ability to hold onto the basketball throughout his career.