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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 the Feb. 13 matchup against Maryland, Krzyzewski thought one of his seniors should start. His choice would set the team up for a run to the championship.
That day, senior Brian Zoubek replaced sophomore Miles Plumlee at center. And gambling on experience paid off, as the 7' 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 to lead Duke to a 21-point win. The moment was critical for Zoubek, who had the ability to be a major contributor but lacked confidence, and for the Blue Devils, who 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, just when the other team's big men have grown weary of wrestling with them, inject the athletic Plumlee brothers, Miles and freshman Mason.
Early in the NCAA tournament Krzyzewski said he believed Duke's quartet of bigs—not Big Three scorers Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith—would be the difference between a team that could make the Final Four and one that wouldn't last beyond the second weekend. The past few Blue Devils teams had plenty of scorers but lacked the willingness or capability to pound opponents inside. "They were limited teams," Krzyzewski said. "And they couldn't play the defense that this team can play because we have big guys."
As the coach predicted, the Big Men did the dirty work that allowed the Big Three to shine. Duke rarely ran offensive plays for Zoubek or Thomas. If they got the ball, it was likely to draw the defense inside to open up a shooter. If they scored, it was on a putback, such as the Thomas dunk off a Scheyer miss that helped the Blue Devils beat Baylor in the Elite Eight. For the most part, the largest Duke players bided their time setting screens and scrapping for rebounds, which led 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 the Blue Devils prevailed in the Sweet 16 over Purdue, Zoubek's arms were covered with cuts and bruises. It might have been worse if the brawny center didn't wear so much armor, including football-inspired thigh pads, that he looked as if he belonged on Duke coach David Cutcliffe's team instead of Krzyzewski's. "I've got pads on my legs and my knees and arms," Zoubek says. "That's for the game, but I wear these in practice—I need them more in practice."
The Big Men gave as good as they got. Boilermakers guard Chris Kramer, the Big Ten's defensive player of the year, crumpled to the floor after he slammed into a Zoubek screen and had to take a respite on the sidelines. And some of Zoubek's own teammates received more long-lasting 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," says Singler, who also sported a shiner on his left eye in February after diving into a Big Men scramble for a loose ball during practice.
"I have some stitches, too, from Brian," adds Scheyer. "He's a player you love to play with and you would hate to play against. He's really physical. Even if he doesn't mean to, when you run into him, you really feel it."
All the Blue Devils felt the effect of the new, improved Zoubek. In his first three seasons in Durham, Zoubek underwent two foot surgeries and failed to average more than four rebounds a game. This spring he was the linchpin of the four-man rotation. In his first 15 games after he entered the starting lineup, he grabbed at least 10 rebounds eight times.
It took that game against Maryland for Zoubek to realize the player he could be. "Why would I want to go back to what I was doing before?" says Zoubek, who had dropped 20 pounds since the beginning of last season. "I had to fight every single game to keep producing and to stay on the court."