Brian Zoubek finally is playing as big as his 7-foot-1 frame.INDIANAPOLIS –
After helping Duke outmuscle one of the toughest teams in the NCAA tournament, the late-blooming Zoubek has the Blue Devils (34-5) poised to win their fourth national championship when they face hometown underdog Butler (33-4) on Monday night.
On a team dominated by its "Big Three" scorers, it's Zoubek who has emerged as the biggest surprise and is a major reason why Duke is still playing.
"(Opponents) haven't seen me as much. They see a 7-foot-1 white guy who can't move extremely well, can't jump that high," Zoubek said. "I'm proving it every single day out there on the court. A couple screens, and I'll get a little more respect, you know?"
After moving into the starting lineup two months ago, Zoubek followed a strong push at the close of the regular season with even better play in the postseason, grabbing at least 10 rebounds in three of his last four tournament games.
Zoubek always was the poster child for what coach Mike Krzyzewski has said is his biggest team in three decades at Duke, and there is no shortage of reasons for his recent surge: He is finally healthy after some nagging injuries, he's developed a nose for rebounds and he is effective at kicking the ball out for open 3-pointers from teammates who are more comfortable with him.
But perhaps the simplest explanation for his improvement fits best.
"Because he's a big guy," guard Nolan Smith quipped. "He knows how to use his size. He's getting great position on rebounds, he's playing hard and he's making it hard for teams to do anything in the paint with him in there. He's moving his feet great. ... Moving the way he does, it's hard to deal with."
It took him 3½ years to make himself a vital member of the rotation, with his average playing time climbing from 12 minutes last year to 18 this year. It helped that foot injuries he battled as a sophomore and junior have healed.
"We're really going to study and document the road that he's traveled from freshman to senior year because he's a great example for a lot of kids that aren't playing a lot as a freshman, about embracing your role, getting better, doing whatever the team needs to do," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "Now you see what a powerful figure he is on that team."
After coming off the bench for the first 24 games, Zoubek was inserted into the starting lineup Feb. 13 against Maryland — then never left it.
"It's a process. A lot of days in the gym, a lot of sweat, a lot of hatred toward (assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski) for all the stuff he put me through," Zoubek said with a laugh. "But it was all worth it. It's hard to see the future in all the work you put in. How's it going to help you, and is it worth it? It is. This really proves that."
West Virginia, one of the nation's top rebounding teams, couldn't keep Zoubek off the boards in the semifinals Saturday night. He had 10 rebounds and three assists — a product of Duke's rebound-and-kick strategy — in a surprisingly lopsided 78-57 victory over the Mountaineers that put the Blue Devils in the championship game for the 10th time in school history.
"We're happy about the West Virginia win, but as soon as we got into the locker room, it was, 'Next play,'" Zoubek said. "No time to celebrate. Everybody just said, 'One more.' That was our goal this whole tournament, and it's right here."
Next up: A Bulldogs team that doesn't play anyone taller than 6-9 and may be without its best post player. Matt Howard, who's 6-8, will be a game-time decision after suffering a head injury during Butler's semifinal win against Michigan State.
"We're going to be smaller than them, no matter what we do," Stevens said.
The plan, Zoubek said, is to make their size work for them, as they've done all through the tournament. The blue-blooded program has dominated most games with blue-collar dedication to defense and rebounding. Duke is allowing just 56 points per game and has an average rebounding margin of plus-9 in the tournament.
"We have to take advantage of our size on both ends of the court, really bother them when they get into the lane on defense," Zoubek said. "Taking charges, blocking shots, defensive rebounding, then really hitting the offensive glass, trying to establish a little more post scoring in the game. They've done a great job against bigger guys, so I know it's going to be tough."