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If Howard Falters, Team May Face Dreaded Rebuilding Mode

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

By Bob Sutton, Burlington (N.C.) Times-News
November 11, 2002 WINSTON-SALEM — Skip Prosser found out quite a bit last season, during his first tour of the ACC. He says it's a place for men. So with a Wake Forest roster overflowing with freshmen and sophomores, there's natural reason for apprehension. Yet that's not Prosser's style, not for the man who likes a full-speed, all-out pace from his team on the basketball court.

The Demon Deacons are a group consisting of sophomores in the roles of veterans, and that's before the regular medical updates on the team's two seniors. Prosser would rather get on with the issue of finding a silver lining than mope about things mostly out of his control.

“It's not going to say Wake Forest Sophomore or Wake Forest Freshman,” Prosser said. “It's going to say Wake Forest.”

That tends to say quite a bit. But what many observers are saying about the Demon Deacons comes in the form of questions about how quickly the talented youngsters will be ready for the ACC rigors, and whether there's enough leadership to navigate rough stretches.

Four of Wake Forest's top five scorers from last year are gone. Forward Josh Howard (13.9 points per game) is back, but he brings with him lingering shin splints that have limited his practice time and drawn concerns throughout the Winston-Salem campus.

Prosser's first Wake Forest team, largely inherited from Dave Odom, went 21-13 on its way to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. He refuses to accept that this season's team should lower expectations. He won't utter the word “rebuilding.”

“It's a word I've never used,” he said. “I don't plan on using it this year. It's like a dirty word for us.”

So is “injuries.” Those hampered the Demon Deacons during the early weeks of practice. Howard might have been the popular choice for ACC preseason player of the year had the ailments not kept him out of practice for most of October. Senior shooter Steve Lepore hopes to be ready for the Nov. 27 opener against Yale, but he's only about 65 percent recovered from March's knee surgery. Freshmen Eric Williams and Justin Gray have sat out with injuries as well.

“We can't bring anybody from Triple-A,” Prosser said. “I search the waiver wire every day.”

In Howard, the coach has an athletic 6-6 slasher with good scoring ability. How he handles the potential pressure will be crucial for the Demon Deacons.

“When he practices, he's the Josh Howard of old,” Lepore said. “I think once he gets out on the court, he'll be fine. For Josh, he has everything. He flies to the basket, he gets offensive rebounds. ... He hasn't had a chance to shine a lot (because of older players on the team). Now that he's the man, we'll see how good he can be.”

As good as Howard has been during his first three seasons, he has shown the tendency for emotional outbursts that have been more harmful than helpful. The team can't afford for his injuries to boil over into unmanageable frustration.

Howard said he understands his leadership will be essential to the team's success. Depending on his demeanor, he could set an ideal example for the younger players to follow.

“Being very calm and knowing it's my senior year and going out there and having fun,” Howard said of his focus. “Experience, I think we'll be alright. It's just the matter of getting the freshmen going.”

Howard's injury aside or not, Wake Forest must find alternate means of scoring. Prosser is comfortable if that comes by committee, because there's no clear-cut candidate to play second fiddle to Howard.

Sophomore Taron Downey is emerging as a potential spark, starting to show assertiveness that could translate into an effective point guard. From there, the Demon Deacons might have to lean on sophomores Jamaal Levy, whose 180 pounds on a 6-9 frame belies the tag of power forward, and Vytas Danelius.

Danelius, who comes in a similar mold as countryman Darius Songaila, could be the key factor. Danelius lacks the inside presence Songaila provided over the last four seasons, but he runs the court better and can offer more offense from the perimeter.

“The three sophomores are going to have to score,” Prosser said. “Aside from Josh, we don't have any other proven scorers.”

Trent Strickland, a 6-5 guard, was the most impressive newcomer in the early practices. There's room in the backcourt to make an impact. On the inside, the 6-9 Williams is surprisingly agile for a 270-pounder, after shedding 40-plus pounds since last spring.

“You've got to pack a lunch to get around him,” Prosser said.

Williams is the most highly touted of the freshmen. Prosser likes his work ethic, but he'll need a good dose of seasoning in the ACC.

“It seems really fast-paced to me,” Williams said. “Everything we do in practice, we're just constantly moving. ... I realize you need a lot more mentally. This is a lot more mentally than physically.”

Gray (6-2) and Chris Ellis (6-8) will be needed to provide key minutes. Gray, who has a good shooting touch, is Downey's likely backup. Richard Joyce (6-5) needs work defensively.

“It will be interesting to see how these guys react,” Lepore said, sensing as a practice observer that the freshmen need to understand that playing as hard as they've ever played might not be hard enough at this level.

Prosser's concerns are widespread. On offense, the players haven't displayed a strong understanding of shot discipline. It's taking even longer for the defensive mindset to kick in, he said. The lineup could fluctuate until the Demon Deacons find a comfort zone.

“I'm not averse to playing that ësmall ballÇ' if that helps us,” Prosser said. “I'm not averse to doing that.”

With only two NCAA appearances in the last five seasons, the rate of success might not be up to Wake Forest's expected standards. But the Demon Deacons have posted winning seasons for 12 consecutive years — the longest active stretch among ACC teams — and boast a postseason NIT championship in 2000.

This group of young Demon Deacons will be challenged to move on to the next play and not dwell on what just happened — good or bad. It's truly a work in progress.

“I think they try hard to be tough,” Prosser said. “It's harder to do that with kids than men. We had a lot of men on the team last year. They can't play like kids. You have to play like men because this is a league for men.”

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