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On Duke, Expectations, and Brian Zoubek

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Two things struck me about the long Al Featherston piece on North Carolina and Virginia Tech I linked to on Monday. The first was the deference to Duke fans through the entire piece. It is a Duke website, after all, so I'd expect everything to be written with a Blue Devil perspective, and that doesn't bother me. But there's an undercurrent throughout the piece that feels like Featherston is mollifying anxious Duke fans, assuring them they're still pretty. The piece has a disclaimer in the introduction basically asking forgiveness for writing about UNC and Tech, and promising that the Duke season will still be fascinating, and then closes with further assurances that Duke will have a better season than both of them. It has the same vibe as this bizarre Dick Vitale tweet:

Posted my conference rankings & I can not get over the anti Duke sentiment -Am I the only 1 picking Duke ? Face facts they r Terrific!less than a minute ago via web


It's like someone's under the delusion that Duke is the disrespected underdog, when as far as I can tell I'm taking the harsh view merely my claiming they won't go undefeated, and probably won't win the national championship. I don't think anyone is picking them not to win the ACC at this point, outside the fat-fingered guy in Roanoke who's already apologized.

(As an aside, isn't that Tweet just the ultimate distillation of Dick Vitale? Support for Duke, the most conventional of wisdom packaged like it's bold analysis, overenthusiastic and grammatically poor? The only thing missing is a long, unrelated digression about some other team, sport, or person he had lunch with. And maybe the phrase "Diaper Dandy.")

The second thing that confused me about Featherston's piece was a little more subtle. Here, I've picked out the relevant parts:

There were quite a few ACC observers who correctly guessed that Nolan Smith would elevate his game going into his senior season, but who predicted that Brian Zoubek would emerge in the last six weeks of his college career as a dominant player? [...]

Experience helped transform Lance Thomas, Brian Zoubek and Willie Veasley into superior college players [...]

That's not to say that Delaney, Hudson and Allen can't improve - Zoubek is recent proof that it's never too late to blossom - but on the whole, the players who take a step up late in their careers are those whose early careers are stunted by something like injuries (as in Zoubek's case) or by role changes (as Chris Carrawell went from supporting player to leader in his senior season).

Dominant player? Superior player? Brian Zoubek?

Now I know I blocked a lot of last season out, but this I would have remembered. Just to be sure, I hit the relevant stat pages. And it pretty much backed up what I had remembered. The only uptick in stats over those final six weeks came in the category he was second in the ACC in and first in the country when measured tempo-free: offensive rebounds.

Don't get me wrong, the importance of offensive rebounds shouldn't be minimized, and Zoubek was really good at pulling them down. But it wasn't some superior rebounding skill he discovered in the last six weeks; it was a really novel offensive strategy Krzyzewski came up with – he stopped using Zoubek as a scoring option completely. In ten of the last fourteen games, Zoubek had more offensive rebounds than shots attempted. Which means, not only were they not feeding him the ball in the paint, when he got his offensive rebounds he didn't put the ball back up. Instead, he fed it back outside to the guards, most often Jon Scheyer.

Now don't get me wrong. This was very, very difficult to defend, and Duke had a lot of success with it. I consider it one of Krzyzewski's more brilliant coaching jobs. But it wasn't do to a sudden improvement from Zoubek. And more importantly, without the particular skills of Zoubek and Scheyer, it will be hard to repeat this season. The only person who appears to realize this however, is Krzyzewski himself:

Instead of simply plugging two big bodies into the lineup to fill the holes left by a pair of graduated post players, he's changing the way they'll play at both ends of the court to better take advantage of a lineup that returns a few familiar faces but otherwise will operate at a distinctly faster pace.

"The reason ‘replace' isn't so good is because we're not running the same system," Krzyzewski said. "Coaches that run a system every year - there's nothing wrong with that - then they're trying to plug in somebody, like ‘I need this point guard to do what that point guard did.' We try never to do that, so you never feel like you have to be like somebody. Be yourself. Let's develop a system and go from there."

Krzyzewski says he's going with a more up-tempo style of play this season, which if true will make for some really interesting Carolina-Duke games. I say "if true" because, well, every coach claims they're going up-tempo each season; it doesn't always happen. It does with Duke though, who were Top 30 in tempos in 2006 and 2008, but 249th last season. On the other hand, Seth Davis went to a Duke practice and noticed this:

As I reflected on the practice in the days that followed, I realized how much of my positive impression resulted from the Plumlee brothers. In most programs, either one would be a first or second option who would be looked on to create scoring in the post. On this team, they only need to worry about setting screens, working the boards and keeping their hands ready for passes when they're open. Both Plumlees are good athletes with longer-than-expected shooting range, but what really surprised me was their ability to pass. They also have that telekinetic thing that brothers have, and it's a lot of fun watching them feed to each other in Duke's motion offense.

That sounds like to players trying to replicate the Zoubek role if I've ever heard it.