- Brian Bennett, College Football
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Brian Zoubek knows how people viewed Duke's big men the past few years.
"Underwhelming," Zoubek says. "Overmatched. Nonexistent."
The Blue Devils' lack of a legitimate post presence has been the main reason why they haven't advanced past the Sweet 16 since 2004. As the team's only 7-footer during the most recent tournament knockouts, Zoubek found himself subjected to heavy criticism. A former star recruit, he entered his senior season averaging just 3.6 points and 3.1 rebounds during an injury-plagued career.
This year, though, has been a different story. And as a result, Duke is a different team.
Finally healthy, the 7-foot-1, 260-pound Zoubek has emerged as a force in the middle for the top-seeded Blue Devils, who take on No. 4 seed Purdue on Friday night. Coach Mike Krzyzewski moved Zoubek into the starting lineup for good on Feb. 13 against Maryland, and the senior responded with 16 points and 17 rebounds. Since then, he's averaging nearly eight points and 10 rebounds per game, including a 14-point, 13-rebound performance in Sunday's second-round win over California.
"He's the veteran out there, and he's had a terrific year, talking, communicating on defense and on offense, screening, rebounding and playing defense," Krzyzewski said. "I'm really proud of Brian."
Pride was a word rarely tossed around when it came to Duke's recent glass work in the NCAA tournament. In last year's loss to Villanova, the Blue Devils were outrebounded 46-32. West Virginia dominated the backboard 45-19 to eliminate Duke in 2008.
Zoubek was not a factor in either of those games, nor for much of his first three years. He broke the fifth metatarsal bone in his left foot in both his freshman and sophomore seasons, requiring postseason surgeries.
"I spent those summers on crutches," he said. "I was never able to do the things I needed to do to get ready for the season."
Fans may not have realized how much the foot injuries affected his conditioning and resulting performance. But if Zoubek was bothered by the harsh critiques of his play, he never complained. His father, Paul, points to a quote that has long been posted on the refrigerator at Brian's grandmother's house: "To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing."
"Brian knows that if you step out on a big stage, then criticism can come with it," Paul Zoubek said. "He did a great job of sticking to it and working hard. It's great to see him get an opportunity to show what he can do and help the team now."
Zoubek was a McDonald's All-American at Haddonfield (N.J.) Memorial High School, scoring more than 2,000 points in his career. He came to college with dreams of being one of Duke's next superstars.
Instead, he has had to adjust to being little more than a role player for most of his career.
"Sure, everybody wants to be a star," he said. "But I realized that I can help this team just as much by rebounding and playing defense."
While Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer are Duke's main scoring options, Zoubek helps free them for shots by setting countless screens in the team's motion offense. On defense, he talks as much as anyone on the court, directing traffic for the guards in front of him. And with his mammoth size, he can hold down the middle.
"He pushes a lot," Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. "I mean, he barges you and he's a great position guy. He anticipates when the ball is going to be shot, and he gets you early underneath the basket. He's very strong."
Zoubek has struggled to stay out of foul trouble in his career and says he constantly reminds himself not to pick up cheapies by reaching and grabbing. But he can be physical in short bursts because Duke can bring in the Plumlee brothers, Miles and Mason, off the bench to play the post.
That gives the Blue Devils an entirely new dimension in this tournament.
"We were always good on-the-ball teams, but teams would just come inside on us," forward Lance Thomas said. "We didn't have any shot blockers, anything like that. But with the way Zoubs is playing, punching stuff out and drawing charges, guys are afraid to drive against us now."
Zoubek has become a popular figure among the Duke student section, who make a Z with their hands in his honor. T-shirts bearing that gesture were sold at senior day against North Carolina. In Jacksonville last weekend, fans chanted "Zoooo" every time he made a play.
Paul Zoubek said he thought the fans were booing his son the first time he heard that chant. There's no worry about that happening these days. And if Zoubek keeps playing this way, no one will think Duke's big men are underwhelming, overmatched or nonexistent.
Brian Bennett covers college sports for ESPN.com.
Injuries and inconsistency prevented Brian Zoubek from fulfilling the potential he had when he arrived at Duke as a McDonald's All-American. Now the big man is happy to contribute to the Blue Devils' success any way he can.