CAMERON INDOOR STADIUM/DURHAM—"That's some beard, man," Duke senior Brian Zoubek said Friday night in the Blue Devils locker room, smiling up at me from his seat. "Do you put Miracle-Gro in that thing?"
Indeed, through the Devils' media day, exhibition games and their 96-62 rout of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro Spartans Friday night, Zoubek—the team's only listed center—has been working through the stages of a beard. A few weeks ago, he told a group of reporters it was just a result of laziness. Friday night, though, he insisted it was possibly intimidating. And good for him: Last year, Zoubek might have been one of the least intimidating 7-foot-1 players in college basketball. Given his unsure hands and feet, there was a general sense that he—along with fellow Duke tower Lance Thomas—just wasn't ready yet.
Friday night, though, he looked confident and energetic. Remember, Zoubek once fouled out last season after playing just seven minutes (against Presbyterian). Against UNC-G, though, he grabbed rebounds regularly, scored 14 points and only fouled three times in 16 minutes. I doubt the performance warrants the word intimidating, but Zoubek did play with a sense of purpose we rarely saw last year. The same goes for Lance Thomas, who spent the off-season adding much needed bulk to his formerly lanky frame and, as he said Friday night, evaluating his play on tape. In the absence of guard Nolan Smith, who returns to the point Tuesday night, Thomas was often left guarding the perimeter, which he did well. He paired down effectively against the bigger Spartans, too, and led the team in defensive rebounds with five. Last year, Duke's big men struggled. This year, even with freshman Mason Plumlee out for several weeks with an injured wrist, they started possibly their biggest line-up ever Friday, and they performed.
Good news from a (now, at least) shallow bench, too: Freshmen Andre Dawkins and Ryan Kelly both appear to be, as billed, exciting players: Dawkins has a quick shot and a fast first step, and Kelly, at 6'10", pairs extraordinary wingspan with the ability to step outside and hit three pointers (which he did once in two attempts Friday). The Devils look to improve tonight against Coastal Carolina in the opening night of the NIT Season Tip-Off.