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Hampered by a recurring foot injury through much of his career, Duke's 7'1" senior center, Brian Zoubek, is finally healthy, in shape, but more important, he is finally providing the physical presence in the paint the team has lacked the last few years.
A reliable contributor off the bench (4.9 points, 6.2 rebounds) through the Blue Devils' first 24 games, Zoubek joined the starting five against Maryland on Feb. 13, replacing sophomore Miles Plumlee because coach Mike Krzyzewski wanted to go with a more experienced lineup. Zoubek made his first start of the season a memorable one, putting up 16 points and pulling down 17 boards in a 77--56 rout. He hasn't been out of the starting lineup since.
In seven games, including last Saturday's 82--50 drubbing of North Carolina, which secured a share of the ACC regular-season title for Duke, Zoubek averaged 7.3 points and 11.3 rebounds, forced an untold number of opponents to alter their shots and "gave our team a huge shot in the arm," says associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski.
"I knew how good I could be if I was healthy," says Zoubek, a former Parade All-America from Haddonfield Memorial (N.J.) High who had surgeries on the fifth metatarsal bone of his left foot after his freshman and sophomore seasons. The recoveries kept him on crutches both summers and compromised his conditioning and footwork for most of his career. "My teammates and coaches were the only ones who could see how good I could be in practice. It was frustrating not to be able to translate that to games. Once I got into the starting lineup I realized, it's now or never."
This atypical Blue Devils team boasts one of its tallest lineups ever and relies on defense and rebounding rather than offense. "We're not a juggernaut that can blow teams out by scoring," says senior guard Jon Scheyer (6'5"), who along with junior backcourt mates Kyle Singler (6'8") and Nolan Smith (6'2") make up Duke's so-called Big Three, whose combined 53.7 points per game makes them the nation's highest-scoring trio and constitutes 66.5% of the team's scoring. "This is as good a defensive team and definitely the best rebounding team I've been on at Duke."
Thus, unlike in recent seasons, a bad shooting night doesn't usually doom the Blue Devils. (They have twice overcome sub-30% shooting to win games.) That versatility could be a big advantage for Duke (26--5 and a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament), which hasn't been to the Final Four since 2004. "I have a great feeling about this team," says Scheyer, a leading candidate for ACC Player of the Year. "We still haven't had a game where we've shot the ball particularly well. Yet with our defense and rebounding, we've shown that we can beat anybody."
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