Coming Up Big for Duke
By Joedy McCreary
March 23, 2010
DURHAM, N.C. (AP) -- Duke's "Big Three" handle most of the scoring. It's the big men doing the dirty work underneath who have helped the Blue Devils advance to the round of 16.
What was considered a serious liability for Duke -- a lack of reliable size in the paint -- has become an unsung strength. The Blue Devils are better equipped to deal with the off nights that sometimes plague teams that thrive on 3-point shooting.
Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith combine to average 67 percent of the team's points. But in years past, a cold shooting night by any of them might have led to an early exit from the NCAA tournament.
That hasn't been a problem this time. Not with center Brian Zoubek dominating the lane, gritty senior Lance Thomas playing with unmatched emotion and 6-foot-10 brothers Miles and Mason Plumlee filling valuable roles off the bench.
"This team has so much talent and so much potential. Every game, somebody steps up, and that's the exciting thing about this team," Smith said after a second-round win against California. "We might not shoot good every game, but we play defense and play hard, and any game, somebody is going to surprise you."
Lately, that's been Zoubek -- well, at least to outsiders, anyway.
The 7-foot-1 senior had 14 points and 13 rebounds in the win against Cal, and he's reached double figures in rebounds in six of the last 12 games of his late-season surge.
But his value to the No. 1 seeded Blue Devils (31-5) can't be measured solely by his stat line. His presence in the paint and his knack for cleaning up misses from Singler and Scheyer has given the team an added weapon, with coach Mike Krzyzewski calling him one of the team's unsung heroes.
The Hall of Fame coach said in the preseason that this was his biggest team in three decades at Duke, and Zoubek is making that claim mean something.
Scheyer was 1 for 11 against Cal, but Zoubek helped make up for that cold spell with his rebounding and his 6-for-6 shooting performance from his low-post comfort zone. Thomas added nine rebounds.
"It was a really tough game inside, a lot of elbows thrown, a lot of contact," Zoubek said. "Both teams were playing hard, and we knew that the rebounding was going to be an essential part of the game, so both teams were fighting for it. I know that (Cal's Jamal) Boykin and (Markhuri Sanders-Frison) were really being physical underneath, and I know that, for me, without Lance being just as physical or more physical than them, I wouldn't have gotten a lot of rebounds, and I wouldn't have gotten a lot of stuff."
That steady play in the paint has kept the Blue Devils immune from the upsets and close calls that have plagued so many high seeds in this year's tournament.
Duke won its first two South Regional games by 29 and 15 points to reach the regional semifinals for the 19th time under Krzyzewski, and the Blue Devils face a manageable path to their coach's 11th Final Four and first since 2004.
If they get past a fourth-seeded Purdue team in Houston that's playing without injured star Robbie Hummel, they'll face either No. 3 seed Baylor or upstart No. 10 seed Saint Mary's with an invitation to Indianapolis on the line.
That would fall in line with the incremental progress the seniors have made through the years. They were knocked out in the first round as freshmen in 2007, were beaten in Round 2 as sophomores and advanced to the regional semifinals last year.
"We're a better team this year. I don't know if we'll go any further, but this is a better team because it can play total defense," Krzyzewski said. "Someone will say in the past, well, they relied on the 3-point shot. Well, what else were we going to rely on? We relied on it enough to win 30 games
"Just because then you lose, doesn't mean those kids underachieved. They maxed. This team is better. It's not a great team, but it's an excellent defensive team that hopefully can be a little bit better offensively as we go forward."