IU Final Four News Bureau
April 4, 2010 6:25 p.m.
At 7-foot-1 and with a wide frame capable of backing down any player in the nation, Duke senior center Brian Zoubek comes across as a tough person.
But on Sunday afternoon, the Haddonfield, N.J. native explained how the journey to this point in his career – a starter and major contributor to a team in the NCAA Championship game – has been a long, emotional struggle.
In the summer before his sophomore year, Zoubek broke his left leg after coming down hard in a pickup game. He had surgery two days later and was forced to walk on crutches for the next ten weeks.
Unfortunately, his troubles were not finished.
After successfully rehabbing, Zoubek broke his left foot again in a January 2008 practice and sat out another month. In July, after feeling pain in the foot, he underwent another surgery that kept him on the sidelines for another three to four months.
“There were times, especially during my sophomore year, where I was clearly a step behind everyone else,” Zoubek said. “I felt I was letting my team down because I wasn’t able to keep up. There was a real point where I had to look in the mirror and determine how hard I would have to work to get back.”
Enter Duke assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski.
The former Blue Devil captain worked extensively with Zoubek on getting his original footwork and leaping abilities restored.
“He has had broken foot after broken foot and has been through adversity,” Wojciechowski said. “Throughout his career he has tasted heartache. He’s used that to become better and has never stopped fighting.”
Zoubek said he never could have reached this level of play without Wojciechowski pushing him to become better.
“As much as I hate him sometimes – making me do sprints – it’s all worth it,” Zoubek said. “I know he has my back 100 percent. Even with my injuries, he was fighting for me the whole time. It’s unbelievable to have someone like that right beside me.”
In a game against Maryland on February 13, 2009, Zoubek showed the college basketball world he was, indeed, back.
Despite only being on the floor for only 22 minutes, he filled in for then-injured forward Lance Thomas by totaling 16 points and 17 rebounds in a 77-56 victory against the Terrapins. Since that game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, he hasn’t left the starting lineup.
This season, especially during the NCAA Tournament, Zoubek has continued to make his presence known. In three of the last four games this postseason, he has pulled down 10 or more rebounds and has been one of Duke’s most consistent post-players.
Thomas, now sharing a frontcourt role with Zoubek, said he was “very happy for him” knowing all that he has dealt with in his four years.
“The fact that he has been able to get through those injuries and play the way he is playing now, speaks a lot for him mentally,” Thomas said. “When I see Brian fist pumping, screaming, jumping up and bumping guys, it’s really good to see – especially after I saw him at his lowest point.”
When Duke takes on Butler in Monday night’s NCAA Championship game, one of the big advantages the Blue Devils have is size. No player on the Bulldog roster is taller than 6-foot-11.
Zoubek hopes to exploit this in any way he can en route to leading his team to a national title.
“I obviously want to take advantage of this on both ends of the floor,” Zoubek said. “I know they do a great job against bigger teams and we are really going to have to work for it.”
One major, lingering question is who Zoubek will be working against on Monday night. Butler big man Matt Howard suffered a mild concussion in the second half of Saturday’s game against Michigan State, and his status was listed as a game-time decision.
If Howard plays, Wojciechowski says he will present challenges for Zoubek.
“He’s going to go against a guy who is very crafty and reminds me of a European big man,” Wojciechowski said. “He’s not the biggest guy, but he utilizes his footwoork to get around post defenders. Defensively, he has all the tricks of the trade.”
After a multitude of his own injuries and months training off the court, Zoubek has worked hard to get to this stage in his life. If he plays well against Butler, his team has a very good chance to walk out of Lucas Oil Stadium as champions.
The path has not been easy. But according to Zoubek, the dividends will pay off.
“It’s been a lot of Monday’s in the gym, a lot of sweat and a lot of hatred toward Wojo for what he put me through, but it was all worth it,” he said. “From now on, I’m going to have that in my mind, in terms of when I get tired or don’t think I can do it anymore. If you put in the work, good things will happen.”
A team of Indiana University journalists is reporting for the Final Four Student News Bureau, a project between IU’s National Sports Journalism Center and the NCAA at the men’s tournament in Indianapolis.