Zoubek's progress follows Duke's path
INDIANAPOLIS -- The dark days came too fast and furious for Brian Zoubek to pick out the worst. There was the 24-hour span in which he went from the liberating joy of playing a pickup game to laying on an operating table, his college career temporarily derailed.
There were the months on crutches and in a corrective boot that looked like something out of Frankenstein's lab.
There was the horrific day in practice when he rebroke his surgically repaired foot, and the day, months later, when doctors realized that the second break didn't heal. Another surgery was required.
Mostly there was the string of days, one folding into another, when Zoubek watched his college career pass him by from his seat on the bench. As Duke and its motion offense zinged up and down the floor, the less-than-agile Zoubek never averaged more than 10 minutes per game.
And yet for some reason, maybe the perfect dose of foolishness and stubbornness, Zoubek stuck around. Critics and even friends suggested he leave, take his game to a school like Penn or Princeton, where the academically gifted student could soar and the physically gifted athlete could also play.
"I wasn't interested in flight in the fight or flight,'' Zoubek said. "I didn't want to run away to a school where maybe I could be a star or score a lot of points. I felt like if I could succeed at Duke, I could succeed anywhere. If I ran away, I knew I'd regret it for the rest of my life.''
Now Duke is in its first national championship game in nine years, overcoming a tumultuous four-year run not unlike the one its 7-1 senior has endured.
Since Zoubek and his senior teammates arrived on campus, the Devils -- like Zoubek -- have been much maligned and criticized, tagged as underachievers as their NCAA Final Four drought stretched through its second recruiting class.
And the Devils are in this title game against Butler because their identity has changed.
It looks an awful like the bearded man holding down the middle of the lane. At practice, Zoubek's calling card is an elbow, his parting gift a set of stitches (Kyle Singler and Jon Scheyer both have been on the receiving end) and on the court, he fiercely prowls the paint daring anyone to try to come inside.
When Purdue's Chris Kramer ran smack into Zoubek twice during the Sweet 16 game, leaving the tough guard flattened and woozy, it served as the perfect snapshot of who Duke is.
"We want teams to see that we've come to play, that we're going to play hard and nothing is going to be easy for you,'' Zoubek said. "For me, setting those hard screens, that's a way to make my presence felt.''
It is quite a shift for a player who enjoyed a gilded career in suburban New Jersey.
Born into a family as athletically talented as it is academically gifted -- his father, Paul, played football and baseball at Princeton; his mom, Liza Cartmell, rowed crew at Wellesley and his older sister Sarah played basketball at Yale -- Zoubek never crumbled in the face of such familial success, achieving just as much on his own.
Zoubek led Haddonfield High School to three state championships, including one on a magical day that began with his Group II title at 2 p.m. and ended with Sarah nabbing her state trophy at 6.
"'Hoosiers' is a central theme to this Final Four, but Brian and his sister had their own Haddonfield 'Hoosiers' moment,'' Paul Zoubek recalled. "They got off Interstate 295 and the fire trucks were waiting. They put the boys and the girls teams on the trucks, paraded them through town and to the gym where they could cut down the nets.''
Zoubek would earn New Jersey player of the year honors and a top-50 ranking in most recruiting services before leaving Haddonfield. A good student, he narrowed his choices to Duke and Stanford, opting to head to Durham even though it is not a place known for developing big men (heck, former point guard Steve Wojciechowski coaches the post players).
Zoubek and his high school coach, Paul Wiedeman, asked Mike Krzyzewski pointed questions and Krzyzewski promised nothing -- not playing time, not a change of style, nothing more than opportunity.
But Zoubek wanted the combination of academic and athletic excellence and he liked the idea of staying on the East Coast.
"I had confidence in myself, that I could provide something unique to this team, something unlike anything they ever had,'' Zoubek said. "I knew the perception was that I didn't fit in, but I perceived it as a potential to do something really good and different. I always thought that I was good enough. It just took a while to prove it.''
Bad luck first conspired to keep Zoubek from proving his worth. In the summer before his sophomore season, he broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot. After surgery, he was on crutches until early fall and then doctors placed his foot in a carbon cast inside a boot that included a steel shank. "It was like lugging a club foot around,'' Zoubek said.
Considered healed, he began his sophomore season on time but the repaired bone couldn't take the weight and repeated pressure that Zoubek's frame presented, and in early January, he broke it again.
Limited and hobbled, Zoubek resumed the season in early February, but doctors realized the injury hadn't properly healed and in the offseason, it was back to surgery, crutches and the boot.
"We spent a lot of time recuperating after surgery with Brian," Paul Zoubek said. "There were a lot of low moments, a lot of low moments, but he didn't want to redshirt. He wanted to play."
So Zoubek returned to the floor but still couldn't grab more than 10 minutes a game. He averaged a pedestrian 4.1 points and 3.7 rebounds and people talked more about what Zoubek was than what he wasn't.
For the first time, the player who never lacked confidence had a crisis of conscience.
"How can you not question it?'' he said. "Who wouldn't have doubts? But I also know I wasn't good enough or strong enough to force my way onto the team or onto the court.''
Mixed in with Zoubek's personal struggles were those of the Duke team. The Devils exited the NCAA tournament in the first round in Zoubek's freshman season, the second round in his sophomore season and the Sweet 16 last year. Year by year the players felt the enormity of the tradition they were expected to bear, and when this season started, they knew there was only one acceptable finish.
For Zoubek, the season started much like his previous three -- on the bench while Miles Plumlee started. But on Feb. 13, Krzyzewski gave Zoubek the start against Maryland. The senior rewarded his coach with 17 points and 16 rebounds. He hasn't come off the bench since.
Zoubek is still not the first, second, third or even fourth scoring option. When a reporter began a question during Sunday's news conference by saying, "This is for the shooters,'' Zoubek smirked and nodded his head as his coach deadpanned: "That's not you, Brian.''
So strong is Zoubek's notion to not score, he admits to being a bit panicked when he gets the ball under the hoop, instinctively dishing it outside instead of going to the rim himself.
But his teammates aren't complaining. The 11.5 rebounds Zoubek is averaging over the last four games and countless screens he's set make him every bit as vital to Duke's success as Singler, Scheyer and Nolan Smith.
"There are times when he's two feet from the basket and instead of going up, he kicks it out to a 3-point shooter,'' Wiedeman said. "I bite my tongue. There's a method to the madness and the madness works.''
It worked all the way for Duke.
"I'm a 7-1 white guy who can't move all that well and I don't jump that high, so I have to prove myself every day,'' Zoubek said. "A couple of more screens and maybe I'll get some respect.''
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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