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After Strong Season, Even Higher Hopes

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

March 24, 2003 WINSTON-SALEM — Was this a special season for Wake Forest basketball? Yes. The Deacons played much better than expected, winning more ACC games than any team in school history. They unanimously landed the league's major awards for top coach and player.

But will anyone remember this season 10 years from now? Not likely.

That's because college basketball is a postseason game, especially when you play in a state where three other schools have won 39 of 50 ACC Tournaments and when you play in a league that has sent a team to the Final Four in 14 of the last 15 years.

The Deacons' postseason flameout made this just another strong year in the program's impressive history. After all, the Deacs have pulled the “one ACC win, one NCAA win” trick four times in the past decade. Only four times in school history have they won two games or more in both tournaments in the same season (1961-62, 1995-96). Frankly, though, Wake Forest fans should be happy if this season is forgotten in time. If that happens, it will mean the program has continued its winning ways (it hasn't missed the postseason since 1990), not reached an apex with a season like this.

After all, hopes remain very high for the future. Wake will lose all-everything Josh Howard and leader Steve Lepore, but coach Skip Prosser returns a battle-tested, deep and talented team. He'll also add a solid recruiting class, including another McDonald's All-American in exciting point guard Chris Paul.

A few other things may change in the offseason. Assistant Jeff Battle already has been mentioned in a national publication as someone who'll get lots of looks for open head coaching spots. Before the season, the Sports Journal listed freshman wing Richard Joyce as a transfer waiting to happen, and there's no reason it couldn't happen this offseason. Joyce rarely played this season, and two more talented guards will enter the program this fall.

Plenty Of Quality Parts Returning

So while this season ended with questions about Prosser working his team too hard (a charge that followed him from Xavier) and whether the Deacons got too caught up in their own hype by the end of the year (probably an exaggeration), here's what stands out looking ahead to next season:

p The guard rotation: The Deacons played a combo guard at the point all season, and they got away with it a lot of the time. Sophomore Taron Downey is the closest thing Wake has had to a good point guard in a long time, but he still doesn't command a team like Prosser wants, and he still thinks shot-first too often. Prosser would like his point guard to own the team, and Paul has that kind of ability and personality.

But will it happen so quickly that Downey will be shoved into the background, behind young guns Paul and Justin Gray? Or will another year of maturity allow Downey to be even more comfortable in the driver's seat?

Either way, it seems like a good problem to have — as long as Prosser can manage the personalities, which is one of the coach's many strengths — and Wake should boast one of the deepest backcourts in the league.

p The Howard departure: In the postseason, Wake showed it was just ordinary when Howard was just ordinary. How will the Deacons replace him on the court and in the locker room?

The natural on-court replacement is sophomore Jamaal Levy, who saw plenty of playing time in various roles this season. However, while Levy is a solid defender and rebounder, he doesn't offer nearly the offense that Howard did. Either he'll need to improve significantly in the offseason, or the other Deacons will have to pick up their scoring.

The other possibility is that Trent Strickland will see major minutes as a sophomore next season. Strickland, also a good defender, has excellent offensive potential, often bringing Howard to mind, but he played out of control for many stretches this season. However, with regular minutes (as seen with Levy this season), Strickland may bring a more consistent game. There's no doubt that no Deacon will work harder than Strickland in the offseason.

As for the locker room, the only real candidate to step into the leadership role is Gray, but that's not a bad guy to have to rely on. He proved again and again — even in the disappointing, season-ending loss to Auburn — that he's fearless, and look for him to take this team over. Nothing intimidates this kid, and it shows in his play. Prosser probably also would like Downey or Paul to factor into this, but this won't be a team loaded with powerful personalities. It may have to feed off of Gray's emotion and confidence.

p Eric Williams/Vytas Danelius: Perhaps there's no bigger key, literally or figuratively, to Wake's season than Williams. This year, the monster center showed a few flashes of what he had to offer: good mobility to go with a powerful body, plus a jump hook and a turnaround jumper here and there.

But Williams spent much of the season watching from the bench — too much for a McDonald's All-American. He often was in foul trouble, sometimes re-entering the game for only a few possessions before picking up another. At other times, Prosser simply didn't like the defensive matchup, preferring a smaller lineup with Danelius at center.

In addition, Williams' offense — those rare flashes aside, even against some strong opponents — still has plenty of room for improvement. He certainly has learned by now that he can't always rely on being able to power to the basket, as he did in high school. If Williams can play, though, he makes Wake a much better team. Few opponents have a player who can match his power, and his bulk allows other teammates to get to the boards. Add a better jump hook, and he becomes a devastating post player. He's a hard worker, so expect those things to come in time.

If they don't come fast enough, Prosser again is faced with what to do with Danelius, a somewhat surprising second-team All-ACC selection as a sophomore. With Williams in the lineup, Danelius can play power forward, the spot where he's best suited. His added three-point ability, to go with his rugged rebounding, makes him a tough matchup for many opponents. He also began to show some ability off the dribble. While he didn't play well against Auburn, he had an excellent season.

Without Williams, Danelius may spend a lot of the year at center, as he did this season. There he's undersized and perhaps confused, as Prosser is urging him to shoot more three-pointers while moving him closer to the basket once the game gets going. Danelius also is more likely to get into foul trouble in the post, as he often picked up off-the-ball fouls this season while trying to muscle for defensive position on a bigger player. Again, though, work ethic is not a question mark with Danelius, so it's not out-of-line to expect continued improvement.

Overall, most of Wake Forest's lingering issues seem to be ones that most teams in the league would love to have. It's always better to wonder how all of the parts will fit together, rather than worrying whether or not there's enough reliable parts on hand.

Expect Prosser to have this team playing fast and hard and right near the top of the league again — on his way to, in the long run, making Wake fans forget this season, even though it was a pretty good one.