HOUSTON -- Duke forward Kyle Singler drove toward the basket and leapt in the air, intending to dunk. Purdue defender Kelsey Barlow jumped at the same time, intending to stop him. When Singler tried to force the ball down, it somehow lodged between the rim and the backboard. It sat there, stuck, until someone jumped up and got it down.
That sums up Duke right now. The team, stuck in a rut for the last half-decade, had become an afterthought at tournament time. The public address announcer even butchered coach Mike Krzyzewski's name during introductions Friday at Reliant Stadium.
But with Friday's bruising victory against fourth-seeded Purdue, the Blue Devils are on the verge of becoming unstuck.
If they aren't already.
That's right, Duke haters. The Dukies are back. This version played a tough and physical -- though inconsistent on offense -- game against Purdue, muscling away in the second half for a 70-57 win.
The key plays happened away from the ball and were made by big man Brian Zoubek. On consecutive possessions, he set picks against Purdue's Chris Kramer, a steamroller in high tops. Both times, Kramer ran face first into Zoubek's shoulder. Both times, Duke scored, turning a tie game into a five-point lead. Both times, Kramer wound up on his back. After the first, he appeared woozy. After the second, as he lay on the ground, a teammate tapped him as if to wake him up.
This is not an unfamiliar site for Duke players. Zoubek has bruises up and down his arms from players running into him.
"I actually have a couple stitches in my face because of Brian," said Singler, whose sharp-shooting kept the team in the game in the first half. He led all scorers with 24 points. "Brian's a big, physical guy. He's very valuable to our team. One of the things he does well is get in the way of the other team's players. He frees our perimeter up very well."
At 7-1, 260, Zoubek is as delicate as a two-by-four to the shins. His 14 rebounds were the most on either team. No Boilermaker managed to get even six boards. No three Purdue players combined had 14 rebounds. Zoubek scored four points and fouled out with a little more than three minutes left in the game.
"He's a player you love to play with and you hate to play against," said Jon Scheyer, Duke's point guard. "He's just really physical. He's such a big body. Even if he doesn't mean to, you run into him. And you really feel it."
Scheyer knows whereof he speaks. He also has stitches courtesy of Zoubek. Zoubek, of course, feels terrible about inflicting such pain on his teammates.
Or maybe not.
"I don't feel bad about that at all," he said. "I don't feel bad when I do it to anybody."
Especially not to Kramer.
"I didn't mean to knock him out," Zoubek said, "but his teammate should have called it out, let him know it was there."
Indeed someone should have. In a larger sense, that's exactly what this game did for the rest of the field.
Let them all know, Duke is here.
This story appears in March 27's edition of Sporting News Today. If you are not receiving Sporting News Today, the only daily digital sports newspaper, sign up today.