In a season of redemption for a Duke program that had slipped from its perch atop college basketball, there is no greater symbol of that revival than an oft-criticized bearded 7-footer known by his teammates as "Zoubs."
Only two months ago, Brian Zoubek appeared destined to be remembered as an injury-prone underachiever who never fulfilled any of the promise he showed in high school. His increased production since then is one of the biggest reasons the Blue Devils have outlasted the teams once ahead of them in the national pecking order and earned a place in Monday's title game against Butler.
Zoubek has averaged 5.0 points and 10.8 rebounds in Duke's past four games, but numbers only hint at his impact. He's the Blue Devils' most consistent interior player, a selfless player who sets good screens, plays tough low-post defense and inevitably makes smart decisions every time he touches the ball.
"Brian's played outstanding basketball these last six weeks," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Sunday. "As well as he had been playing, he's given us toughness. Even last night, some of his rebounds, they weren't just a rebound, there was a toughness there that's really helped us."
If anyone would have suggested two months ago that Zoubek would emerge as a success story, even Duke fans would have expressed doubts. The senior entered Duke as one of the top high school centers in the nation in 2006, but injuries and a lack of explosiveness in the post kept him from living up to the hype.
When Zoubek began his unexpected finishing flourish with a out-of-nowhere 16-point, 17-rebound masterpiece against Maryland on Feb. 13, the overwhelming reaction was surprise and shock. One fan tweeted, "Words that have never been uttered: They couldn't contain Zoubek!" Another wrote "Who is this, and what have you done with Brian Zoubek?" A Baltimore scribe sarcastically dubbed him "Kareem Abdul Zoubek."
Duke doesn't need 16 points and 17 rebounds from Zoubek to win on Monday night, but his ability to control the offensive glass against Butler's undersized front line could be the difference between a comfortable Blue Devils win and a nail biter.
The Bulldogs' stingy perimeter defense promises to provide a stiff challenge for Duke's big three, so any easy second-chance opportunities Zoubek can provide would be greatly appreciated by his teammates.
"I think we definitely have to take advantage of our size on both sides of the court, really bother them when they get into the lane on defense," Zoubek said. "Defensive rebounding and then really hitting the offensive glass, trying to establish a little bit more of a post scoring this game. They've done a great job against bigger guys, so I know they're going to be tough."