Emergence of Duke big men helped propel Blue Devils to Final Four
Duke has developed a reputation for being soft inside; that changed this season
The turning point came Feb. 13, when Brian Zoubek entered the starting lineup
Duke has thrived with Zoubek, Thomas and the Plumlees holding down the paint
For his 1,000th game as Duke's coach, Mike Krzyzewski shook up his lineup. The Blue Devils had won three in a row, but going into their Feb. 13 matchup against Maryland, Krzyzewski thought one of his seniors deserved to start.
That choice helped shape Duke's season, and it set up the Blue Devils for a run to the Final Four.
That day, senior Brian Zoubek replaced sophomore Miles Plumlee in the starting lineup at center. The 7-foot-1 Zoubek, long considered a solid rotation guy but not necessarily a key cog, scored 16 points and grabbed 17 rebounds (eight on offense) in 22 minutes and led the Blue Devils to a 21-point win. The moment was critical for Zoubek, who had the ability but lacked confidence, and for Duke, which had the ingredients to build a championship but had yet to hit upon the proper recipe. Finally, master chef Krzyzewski had discovered the correct mix. Lead with a heavy helping of Zoubek and power forward Lance Thomas, then inject the athletic Plumlee brothers, Miles and freshman Mason, when the other team's big men have grown weary of wrestling with Zoubek and Thomas.
Early in the NCAA tournament, Krzyzewski conceded that Duke's quartet of bigs -- not big three scorers Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith -- were the difference between a team capable of making the Final Four and one that wouldn't last past the second weekend. Duke's past few teams have had plenty of scorers, but they lacked the willingness or the ability to pound opponents in the paint.
"They were limited teams," Krzyzewski said. "And they couldn't play the defense that this team can play because we have big guys."
The Blue Devils rarely run offensive plays for Zoubek or Thomas. If they get the ball, it's likely to draw the defense inside to open up a shooter. If they score, it's on a putback such as the Thomas dunk of a Scheyer miss that helped the Blue Devils beat Baylor in the Elite Eight. For the most part, the largest Blue Devils bide their time setting screens and scrapping for rebounds. That can lead to some banged-up big bodies.
After the Baylor win, Thomas sported a long gash across the middle of his forehead. Two nights earlier after a Sweet 16 win against Purdue, cuts and bruises covered Zoubek's arms. It might have been worse if Zoubek didn't wear so much armor -- including football-inspired thigh pads -- that he looks like he belongs on David Cutcliffe's team instead of Krzyzewski's. "I've got pads on my legs and my knees and arms," Zoubek said. "That's for the game, but I need them more in practice."
Of course, Duke's big men give as good as they get. Purdue guard Chris Kramer, the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year, fell to the floor after he slammed into a Zoubek screen during that Sweet 16 game. Kramer returned to the game after a brief respite. Some of Zoubek's teammates have received more permanent reminders of their collisions with the 260-pounder from Haddonfield, N.J.
"I actually have a couple of stitches on my face because of Brian," Singler said. Scheyer also has been slightly disfigured by a Zoubek pick. "I have some stitches too from Brian," he said. "He's such a big body. He's a player you love to play with, and you would hate to play against. He's really physical. Such a big body. Even if he doesn't mean to, when you run into him, you really feel it."
All the Blue Devils have felt the effect of the new, improved Zoubek that emerged from that Maryland game. He has evolved into the linchpin of the four-man rotation. After failing to average more than four rebounds a game in his first three seasons, Zoubek turned into a fixture on the boards. In 14 games since he entered the starting lineup, he has grabbed at least 11 rebounds seven times.
It took that game against Maryland for Zoubek to realize the player he could be. Others noticed, too. "He should be getting a lot of credit with what he's done with himself as a basketball player from where he was as a freshman to where he is now," Maryland coach Gary Williams said that day. "He is a guy that really found a way to enjoy his college basketball career, which is a great thing. It's nice to see that happen to people, and he's doing a great job."
Once Zoubek got a taste of success, he refused to give it up. "After what I did against Maryland, why would you want to go back and regress to what I was doing before?" he said. "I had to fight every single game to keep producing and to stay on the court."
Thomas, meanwhile, was a semi-regular starter his first three seasons before becoming a fixture in the lineup this season. Like Zoubek, Thomas specializes in the unspectacular, but without him, the Blue Devils never could have come this far. Thomas' shining moment in the tournament came in the middle of the lane with 3:36 remaining in Duke's Elite Eight win against Baylor. Smith made his first free throw to tie the score at 61. He missed his second badly. The ball ricocheted off the back iron and hung above the lane. If Baylor got the rebound, the Bears could have raced down the court and retaken the lead. Baylor forward Quincy Acy had position on Thomas. To make matters worse, Acy -- who once dunked 10 times in a game against Texas -- owned a far superior set of springs.
Still, Thomas refused to concede the rebound. "I just kept my eye on the target," Thomas said. "The rebound was in my reach. It was either me or him, and I wanted it. I wanted it bad." Thomas grabbed the rebound and handed the ball to Singler, who passed to Smith for an open three-pointer. When the Blue Devils followed a defensive stop with a Scheyer three-pointer, they essentially clinched a trip to the Final Four. "We have size, but we have to play a lot smarter. They had the athletes, clearly," Thomas said. "Those guys played way above the rim. But we use our talents. We use what we have."
When Thomas said that, he referred to himself and Zoubek. What Duke's starting frontcourt lacks in athleticism is more than made up for by the Plumlees, a pair of 6-10 Warsaw, Ind., natives whose father played basketball at Tennessee Tech and whose mother played for Purdue. "Earlier in the year, we heard we were 'alarmingly unathletic,' " Scheyer said. "But Miles and Mason are two of the most athletic big guys I know."
Miles Plumlee said the brothers began to shine coming off the bench in the ACC tournament. In postseason games through the Elite Eight, Miles has averaged 16 minutes a game, while Mason has averaged 14.1. That's a dramatic increase from the games immediately following Krzyzewski's shuffling of the lineup. The Plumlees have not disappointed, either. Against Baylor, Miles played 20 minutes and Mason played 15 as Krzyzewski tried to match the Bears' big men athlete for athlete.
"It's been great being able to rotate with those guys and knowing that there's not going to be a drop-off when they come in," Zoubek said. "I think they provide something a little bit different as well, a little more athleticism and blocked shots. So they give the other team a little different look." Their development also has allowed Zoubek and Thomas to give maximum effort without worrying about the Blue Devils having to go small as they rest on the bench. "Rotating in with them," Zoubek said, "we can just play till exhaustion."
That allows Duke's big men to exhaust their opponents, and it allows Duke to win even when shots don't fall. Because while these Blue Devils' predecessors played too pretty to win it all, the current Duke frontcourt embraces the less glamorous side of the game. Zoubek, Thomas and the Plumlees will gladly trade cuts and bruises for a title.
"We knew that if we wanted to get to where we are now and further, we would have to base our game on hard work and dirty work and defense," Zoubek said. "Rebounding goes along with that. Those are the tough things about this game. If you have that every night, you'll always be in a position to win the game."
More College Basketball
College Basketball Truth & Rumors