There were a couple of reasons you would have been laughed out of the blogosphere had you suggested two months ago that Brian Zoubek would play a key role in the national championship game. For one, such lofty heights seemed awfully optimistic at the time for a Duke team that had lost to Georgia Tech and North Carolina State in ACC play and been soundly beaten by Georgetown. Beyond that, Zoubek was at the time better known for his proclivity to fouling than anything else he had done on the floor in his three-plus years as a Blue Devil.
Yet it was Zoubek, finishing the longest outing of his college career, who forced Gordon Hayward to fade away on his go-ahead attempt with seconds to play in Monday's title game and then secured the critical defensive rebound when Hayward's shot missed.
"I thought (it) was so fitting for Brian to do that," Mike Krzyzewski said after the game, "because he really elevated our team over these last six weeks, seven weeks, to where we would have a chance to play and win a national championship."
The seeds of Zoubek's run--and Duke's--were planted in a showdown with Maryland on Feb. 13. As the Blue Devils spanked the Terrapins 77-56 at Cameron Indoor, Zoubek made his first start of the season and dominated with 16 points and 17 rebounds. At the time, it seemed like a career effort that was the product of a favorable matchup against an undersized frontline and rare foul-free action. Instead, it marked the beginning of a new era of Zoubek production. Check out the comparison of Zoubek's stats from ACC/postseason play before and after the Maryland game.
2P% FT% TS% OR40 DR40 PF40 MPG
B.M. .522 .474 .526 6.4 6.9 10.4 15.0
A.M. .667 .690 .688 7.4 9.4 6.1 23.9
While Zoubek's improvement took place in several areas, perhaps the most important differences were in the last two categories--Zoubek's foul rate and his minutes per game went in opposite directions. It's not entirely clear what direction the causation goes there. As my colleague John Gasaway observed in College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10, part of Zoubek's issue might have been that his usage suggested to referees he was coming off the bench hacking. Or possibly Zoubek's mentality changed when he knew he needed to stay on the floor.
Granted, the Zoubek of February-April still won't be confused for Wilt Chamberlain; he fouled out in both of Duke's regional games and averaged more than six fouls per 40 minutes. But the difference was he was at least able to temper his foul issues to the point where he could be a factor in games. That culminated this weekend, when Zoubek twice was foul-free for the entire first half (while his whistle-prone kindred spirit, Butler's Matt Howard, was buried with foul trouble both games). He picked up his fouls in the championship game in a bunch--two right after halftime and two just before the under-12 minute media timeout. That kept him out briefly, but Zoubek was able to return and play foul-free basketball down the stretch (benefiting, no doubt, from the referees' willingness to let much of the contact in the paint slide in a physical game).
The limitations of foul trouble helped conceal Zoubek's dominant boardwork for much of the season. In tempo-free terms, he was the nation's best offensive rebounder--not quite DeJuan Blair's equal on the offensive glass, but like Blair a year ago, more productive than an entire team all by himself. (Zoubek grabbed 21.2 percent of Duke's misses when on the floor; the last-place Denver Pioneers were at 20.1 percent this season.) While Blair specialized in the putback, Zoubek found his own way to contribute, mastering the offensive rebound and kickout to a shooter for a wide-open three-pointer. He had three such sequences in the first half against West Virginia.
Butler, which had kept the nation's No. 6 team on the offensive glass (Kansas State), No. 10 (Michigan State) and No. 29 (Syracuse) in check en route to the title game, enjoyed that same kind of success despite its height disadvantage in the first half. But Zoubek and company made their mark after halftime, and he finished with six offensive boards. Overall, it was Zoubek's fourth double-digit rebounding effort of the NCAA Tournament, which also saw him grab nine boards in 19 minutes against Baylor.
At the other end, the Bulldogs were able at times to take advantage of Zoubek's lack of lateral quickness and Duke's desire to aggressively show against the pick-and-roll. It is that weakness more than any other that limits Zoubek's professional future, though DraftExpress' Jonathan Givony has been touting him as an NBA-caliber player throughout the tournament. For stretches, Zoubek was overmatched in a major mismatch against the much quicker and smaller Hayward. Ultimately, however, Hayward shot 3-of-11 from the field, Butler could get little offense going in the second half and Zoubek made the game's defining defensive play.
When it was all over, Krzyzewski took offense to a reporter's question asking what it meant for Zoubek to conclude what the reporter termed "an up-and-down career" with a championship.
"He hasn't had an up-and-down career," Krzyzewski said. "He's had a great career, where he's had a foot broken twice. So he's had an injury-marred career. It hasn't been up-and-down. First of all, he can't go up-and-down. He can't jump. So it couldn't be up and down."
However you want to term it, Zoubek's time at Duke certainly ended on a high note. Besides his individual statistics, of course, there is how his breakout translated at the team level. After Zoubek was elevated to the starting lineup, the Blue Devils closed the season on a 14-1 and finished it as national champions. As Krzyzewski said, it's hard to imagine Duke playing so well without Zoubek stepping up. And that storyline was impossible to believe just two months ago.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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