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Difficult Schedule Not Always Helpful

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

  January 3, 2005 WINSTON-SALEM — Much has been made of Wake Forest's schedule this season, and rightly so. When Wake began ACC play with an impressive win at Virginia, it already had been tested like no other league school, and a trip to Cincinnati was still on the horizon. After battling the Bearcats, the Deacons will be the only ACC team to play four non-conference teams on their home courts this season. Already, Wake has faced three ranked teams (Arizona in New York, at Illinois, Texas), plus played games at tough venues such as Temple and New Mexico and versus a good Providence team in the Big Apple. Wake coach Skip Prosser has said that he thought this was a team that could handle the challenge, and that he wanted his guys to see different styles of play. "Most teams right now are playing dogs," junior guard Justin Gray said. "We don't look at the other (ACC) teams, but it's in the back of our minds that they're playing smaller schools and not challenging themselves. Games like this will really help us down the stretch." So the question is this: Will it really help? Very little historical precedent exists to make a prediction. Only one other time since Wake joined the ACC has it played at least three ranked opponents before starting league play: in 2001-02, Prosser's first year at the helm. That schedule was brutal. Before Jan. 5, when conference play started in earnest, the Deacons already had faced four ranked teams and one ACC game. Among the foes were UNC Wilmington (first-round NCAA winner), at Arkansas (one of the nation's toughest venues), Minnesota (18-game winner), at St. John's (20 wins, NCAA team) and Richmond (22-game winner). Wake came out of all that 10-3 and ranked No. 23 in the country. It was a talented bunch, featuring five seniors and junior forward Josh Howard. Like this year's team, it had a lot of question marks mentally, so a tough schedule seemed to be perfect preparation for the season. But it didn't work out that way. Wake played nine ranked teams the rest of the season and lost to eight of them. The Deacons finished 9-7 in the league and won one game each in the ACC and NCAA tournaments. Over the last two seasons, Wake has gone the opposite direction with its scheduling. The only two ranked teams it played before January were mandated games: at Wisconsin (No. 23) in the 2002-03 Big Ten Challenge, then a December ACC game at North Carolina (No. 4) in 2003-04. In 2002-03, excluding Wisconsin, Wake won its pre-ACC games by 25.3 points. It was 10-0 heading into league play. From there, the team went 13-3 to win the conference, went 2-3 against ranked opponents and won one game each in the ACC and NCAA tournaments. Last season, other than the UNC game, Wake won its early non-conference games by 23.1 points and again entered ACC play in January at 10-0. From there, the Deacons went 9-7 in the league,
3-6 against ranked opponents, lost in the first round of the ACC Tournament and went to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA event. So if any pattern has emerged, it's that Wake actually had better seasons under Prosser when playing cupcakes in the early going. Of course, it's very difficult to compare different teams and different seasons, and it's almost impossible to draw many firm conclusions. Perhaps Prosser's first team would have totally disintegrated in ACC play if it hadn't been honed with a tough early schedule, for example. After Elon, Some Positive Signs There's no doubt that this season's team needed challenges. Over the last two years, it's been difficult to see that this group can motivate itself to keep a consistently high level of intensity. Junior center Eric Williams underlined that fact when talking about being blown out by Illinois this year. "We kind of underestimated the Illinois game, and people think all of a sudden we have mental problems," Williams said. "But it's not that fact at all. Sometimes it's going to be hard to get up for a game." Of any game on the pre-ACC schedule, it's difficult to see how that would be a hard game to get up for: a top-five team, on national TV, in front of its screaming fans. But that illustrates how shaky this group can be when it comes to dialing up the intensity. One interesting note about this season's schedule is that it was one of the few cupcake games on the schedule that may have made the biggest impact. While Wake beat Elon by 18 points, the game may be one that the Deacons will look back at as a turning point. The signs of pressure were beginning to show in the previous weeks. Prosser didn't like junior forward Trent Strickland's reaction to a foul call against Illinois, so he benched him and then didn't play him against Richmond. Sophomore point guard Chris Paul and Williams were late for a bus and thus benched for the opening minutes against Temple. Then Wake struggled mightily against a 2-6 Elon team that was missing its two best players. On the court, the Deacons looked listless at best, and then early in the second half, senior forward Vytas Danelius was yanked for getting beaten backdoor twice in a row. After he sat down, he reacted with a very loud "shut the (expletive) up" to a comment from somewhere, and Prosser sent him to the locker room for the rest of the night. After the game, Prosser slammed the locker-room door so hard that arena workers had to take it off its hinges to get the team out. In the media room, the players looked as if they had lost by 20. Prosser obviously had told the team not to talk about any internal matters, but only to say how tough Elon played. He and the players, some of the most quotable folks around the league, stuck close to that mantra. It was a depressing scene. Paul said the Deacons learned their lesson. "After the Elon game, we said we have to play with energy and emotion," Paul said. "No matter who we're playing against — if it's Carolina, Elon, A&T, Duke, anybody — you have to play with energy and emotion or you won't be successful." But talk is cheap, and Wake will need to show that consistent intensity for the rest of the season. So far, so good. After some off-court team building — going to the mall, just hanging out together, according to Williams — Wake got it together and came out against Texas with as much intensity as anyone around the program can remember in recent history. The Deacons were focused and moved themselves and the ball quickly and with a sense of purpose. Wake followed with a win at New Mexico, one of the country's toughest places to play. To do it, they had to battle some questionable calls and the absence of Williams for the whole second half. "This is going to give us an advantage," Williams said. "We don't just play road games, we play road games against good teams. We lost one, but we've played in two very, very, very loud arenas … in Illinois and now (New Mexico)." While Wake's recent history doesn't necessarily bear out Williams' claim, it's hard to find fault with Prosser challenging his team. It won't take him long to find out if it worked, as Wake's first seven games of the new year include five road games (four ACC and Cincinnati) and home games against Maryland and North Carolina.