Brian Zoubek had 14 rebounds in Friday’s win over Purdue.
Photo Courtesy: Associated Press
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HOUSTON, Texas – The last time Duke and Baylor competed at the same NCAA Tournament site was 2008, when both lost in the Washington sub-regional because they lacked the one ingredient they now possess: size.
To gauge the two-year evolution of both programs, which meet Sunday in the South Region final, grab a tape measure. Duke uses a rotation of physical big men who help the Blue Devils rank among the nation's leaders in rebounding margin. Baylor starts three players who stand at least 6 feet 10, creating a long and athletic front line to disrupt offenses.
"To continue to be successful in the NCAA Tournament, you have to have balance," Baylor assistant Mark Morefield said. "You might be able to win one or two games with (a guard-oriented team), but it will catch up to you."
Neither had balance two seasons ago. Baylor was an offensive-minded squad that was dominated inside by Purdue in a first-round loss. Duke was a young outside-shooting team that was manhandled on the boards by West Virginia in a second-round defeat.
"The last couple years, we were a free-flowing, jump-shooting perimeter-oriented team, and if that wasn't going well, we weren't winning against a quality opponent," said Duke's associate head coach Chris Collins, later adding that "what this team has done, they have embraced really defending and rebounding."
Now both teams have front lines that have played integral roles in their teams' runs to the region final. And both bring unique skill sets.
Brian Zoubek, Duke's 7-1 senior center, talked to reporters Saturday about setting picks so hard that they leave opponents (like Purdue's Chris Kramer in Friday's Sweet 16 matchup) on the floor for minutes. He talked about battle scars — the black and blue on his right biceps, a cut on his arm, a taped finger. And he talked about initiating contact while boxing out and enjoying physicality.
"It's something you have to learn to enjoy," he acknowledged.
Meantime, Ekpe Udoh, Baylor's 6-10 transfer from Michigan, talked about his love of shot blocking — he set a Big 12 single-season record this season. He talked about staring down Xavier's Jordan Crawford after a block in an early-season game. And he talked about seeing fear in opponents' eyes before they try to get off a shot over his arms.
"I'm in the back of their minds," Udoh said. "It's like with LeBron James, a guy gets a fast break and looks behind because he is scared of what he can do. That's what I can do."
The teams Baylor played this season that most resembled Duke were Kansas and Kansas State because of their size and rebounding prowess. Top-seeded Duke outrebounded Purdue, 48-27, in Friday's Sweet 16 victory, and Zoubek (14 rebounds) and Miles Plumlee combined for 21 rebounds at the center position.
Zoubek's emergence as a senior can be partially attributed to competing against a deeper stable of big men during practice. After not having a legitimate big man to bang with, much less to learn from, during his early years at Duke, he now has four other players who are at least 6-10 to battle during practices that never fail to yield bumps and bruises. He said sometimes practices are tougher than games this season.
Collins said Baylor's front line reminds him of Georgia Tech's and Florida State's because of size — only Kentucky has a taller team than Baylor. The difference: Baylor also has a strong back court.
In recent years, Baylor has had the guard play without the interior presence. Now, in addition to the starting front line of Udoh, Anthony Jones and 7-footer Josh Lomers, the third-seeded Bears can also bring in 6-7 Quincy Acy off the bench.
The front line has helped Baylor's zone defense flummox offenses throughout a season in which the Bears ranked sixth nationally in blocked shots per game and seventh in field goal percentage defense. In Friday's Sweet 16 rout of Saint Mary's, Baylor held the Gaels to 23.3 percent shooting in the first half. Saint Mary's big man Omar Samhan, who entered the game having scored 61 points in two NCAA tournament games, made 1 of 8 shots in the first half.
"You could see their eyes and smile," Udoh said, "because you see how serious defense is and how it can win games."