December 16, 2002 WINSTON-SALEM Skip Prosser hardly could have scripted a better start to the basketball season for the Deacons. Before exams started, Wake Forest put up three victories that probably will look very good to a selection committee in March. More impressive was the way the young team did it: showing weaknesses, then quickly showing it had learned to overcome each of them.
The victories were not over national powers, but each team was solid. Yale should be a challenger for the Ivy title. Temple's postseason hopes could be doomed by a ridiculously tough early schedule, but it is young and coached by John Chaney, which means it should be improved by the Atlantic-10 schedule. Finally, Wake won on the road against Wisconsin, which should hang around the top echelon of the Big Ten this season.
Since the rest of the team's non-conference schedule is fairly weak, save a February matchup with Marquette, these victories could loom large if the Deacons end up on the NCAA bubble or when the committee is making seeding decisions. That weak schedule (teaching opportunities, as Prosser calls them) also could allow Wake to enter ACC play with a sparkling 10-0 record.
But more impressive is how well this young team has come together so quickly. Prosser is loving the attitude mix he has this season, after going through last year with a roller-coaster senior class. The coach never was able to reach that group neither was Dave Odom in a way that consistently drew passionate play.
But this season, Prosser has a teacher's dream a young team that's eager and willing to learn and excited about doing it. Even Josh Howard, whose leadership skills Prosser openly questioned going into the season, has shown improved focus.
Prosser has said that the freshman class has had a positive impact on the sophomores, which is more than he could say for the seniors last season. This group on its own comes early, stays late, watches film and simply loves the game. Their ability to learn was obvious in the early going.
After the second exhibition game, in which EA Sports shot 53 percent, serious questions were raised about the Deacons' defense. It didn't appear that Wake had any communication or help rotation.
Those problems seemed to disappear, though, as Wake held Yale and Temple to less than 42 percent shooting from the field. Though the Deacons slipped some against Wisconsin, few signs showed of the major problems the EA Sports game seemed to portend.
In the opener against Yale, though, a new (and old) problem surfaced: The Deacons, much like last year, had trouble passing the ball into the post. When Yale went to a zone, the Deacons spent much of the second half throwing the ball around the perimeter and firing up three-pointers. In one stretch, they missed 11 of 12 long-range attempts. But one game later, that problem, too, had disappeared. Against Temple, Wake continually pounded the ball inside from all angles, producing three double-doubles along the front line.
Gray, Williams On Growth Chart
The most exciting of those was the 19 points on eight-of-11 shooting and 10 rebounds by freshman center Eric Williams, who hadn't shown much to get excited about before then. Suddenly, Williams was getting more than just garbage layups, he was running the floor and showing excellent footwork in the post. His footwork one of the toughest aspects for young big men allowed him to seal off defenders as he spun quickly to the basket for easy buckets.
After the game, Williams revealed that he had been scared to do much of anything after being called for an offensive foul on one of the first times he touched the ball in the opening exhibition game. He said he felt the officials might call any kind of contact against him because he's so big. Prosser finally told him to just play college ball, and up went another check on the learning chart.
At the same time, keep an eye on Wake's rookie big man during ACC play. League foes likely will be smart enough to start flopping when the massive Williams moves, and how the referees react could dictate how the early part of his career turns out. Many Wake observers still believe that Darius Songaila's career was marred by his reputation with the referees.
Another person who moved up the growth chart before exams was freshman guard Justin Gray.
Until midway through the Wisconsin game, his contributions had been questionable. His ball-handling had been shaky at times, and his trademark outside shooting and often his shot selection had been downright ugly. Yet it was easy to see that Gray had great things on the horizon. He plays with an unnerving confidence, the kind that when mixed with talent produces a cold-hearted hoops killer. He rebounds. He feeds the post creatively.
Finally, late in the Wisconsin game, the coaching staff's message seemed to get through to Gray. They had been reminding him that he could score in other ways. The result? Some breath-taking drives for key baskets down the stretch.
Recently, in a media-room conversation, an NBA scout was asked about the talent on Wake Forest's roster. The first Wake player the scout mentioned was Gray not Howard, not Williams, but Gray. He said Prosser had found a steal, and that Gray would do great things as a Deacon. He also mentioned that it wasn't just his physical skills that impressed him, but also his basketball knowledge and that slightly cocky attitude some kids develop at a place like Oak Hill Academy.
Frontcourt Depth Among Concerns
Not that this team is perfect. Certainly, it has its faults.
The Deacons had a chance to put away all three opponents but allowed each back into the game. Though they showed a lot of resolve in the final minutes against Wisconsin, they also lost a 13-point lead to put themselves in that position. In the first three games, they were outscored by a combined seven points in the second half.
Defense is still a concern, especially when Williams and fellow banger Vytas Danelius are in foul trouble, as they have been often. Wake is not deep up front, and without either of those players, they are vulnerable inside and on the boards.
Turnovers and outside shooting are two questions that might disappear as the season progresses, but they're also worth watching. Finally, if an opponent somehow manages to shut down Howard, it will be interesting to see what that does to the Deacons.
But the main point is that Prosser, in just his second season in Winston-Salem, feels as though he has a team that's more to his mold.
First, they're a very versatile, athletic group.
They're better than people think, extremely athletic at all positions, so multi-dimensional, Wisconsin assistant Greg Gard said. Howard is a tough matchup, but they are not a one-man team. They've got three or four people in at one time who can break you down off the dribble.
Second, and most important, Prosser has a team of basketball guys who are anxious to attack any of the holes he points out. That attitude, combined with a few more of those teaching opportunities, could make a great formula for the rest of the season.