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Improving Defense Halted Ugly Slide

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

  February 2, 2004 WINSTON-SALEM — Rarely does an 11-0 team that's reached No. 3 in the nation find itself searching for an identity, but that's right where Wake Forest was in mid-January. Amidst four straight losses, the Deacons — both players and coaches — began to look unsure about almost everything. Which players should be on the floor? What style should they play? Who's the go-to player?

The Deacons finally seemed to shake out of their slump when they looked up and found themselves down nine early in the second half to Maryland in Joel Coliseum. Wake dominated the rest of the game, outscoring the Terps 40-23, then opened against Virginia with an overwhelming 37-10 run.

But were any of the questions answered during this run? It didn't appear that they were, at least not with any sense of finality, as the Deacons remained a work in progress heading into the second half of the season.

Most intriguing is the lineup battle. The Sports Journal wrote earlier in the season about how Wake's versatility can be both a plus and a minus. Coach Skip Prosser has so many parts that he can move around that he's had trouble settling on a lineup or a style.

Heading into January, Prosser was worried about rebounding with his three-guard lineup. So he began experimenting with various larger lineups, including more minutes for 6-5 sophomore swingman Trent Strickland and 6-11 freshman center Kyle Visser. In addition, he tried to work 6-9 junior forward Vytas Danelius, sidelined with a variety of injury and conditioning problems, back into the lineup. But while the Deacons held their own on the backboards, they suffered in other areas. Many players shifted between two or three positions, and without clearly defined roles, Wake sometimes seemed lost on both ends of the court.

Sophomore center Eric Williams continued to struggle, and his teammates continued to have problems remembering to get him the ball. Danelius still hasn't gotten back into the flow, and it's now becoming questionable whether he will this season. Sophomore guard Justin Gray's shot came and went, and his drives to the hoop often seemed fruitless against bigger players. Junior guard Taron Downey, one of Wake's most efficient players, saw his minutes drop when Prosser went bigger. In consecutive games, Prosser yanked Strickland and junior forward Jamaal Levy for repeated problems. Most importantly, Wake's defense seemed to disappear.

So it shouldn't have come as a surprise, then, when the resurgence was caused by the Deacons' best defensive lineup. Against Maryland, Wake had been torched for 53 first-half points, then nine more in the first 3:52 of the second half. At that point, Williams drew his fourth foul, and Prosser went with a lineup of freshman point guard Chris Paul, Downey, Gray, Levy and Visser. Gray quickly picked up a foul and was replaced by Strickland.

For about 15 minutes, from Williams' foul until the final minute when Maryland hit some wild three-pointers, the Terrapins had 28 possessions. Wake forced 12 turnovers, plus 11 misses on 15 shots.

“The key was we guarded much better,” Prosser said. “We had some energy.”

That defensive energy carried over to the Virginia game, as Wake forced nine turnovers and 11 misses on 16 shots while racing to a 37-10 lead in the first 11:12.

Meanwhile, Downey re-emerged after playing less than 29 minutes in six straight games. Prosser went to him for 33 and 31 against Maryland and Virginia. In addition, Visser began to give the Deacs an alternative inside. After scoring in double figures twice in the first 14 games, Visser put together three straight double-figure games through Virginia. His fearless energy appears contagious, as the Deacons seem to pick up when he plays. When Visser is playing well, Prosser is able to keep Williams and Danelius on the bench, which makes Wake much quicker on both ends.

While the defense seems to have picked up, the offense remains a bit of a mystery. For much of the early season, Prosser made a case that the offense needs to start in the middle, but that hasn't played out on the court. The Deacons still rarely feed the post, and Williams obviously is feeling frustrated. Normally quiet, Williams finally threw up his arms and yelled after not getting the ball on one trip against Maryland.

“When shots are dropping like (against Virginia), everything looks good,” Prosser said. “I thought they really did some good things, but again, we were just hitting shots. Some of the things they did, they took us out of things, but when you're making shots, it doesn't matter.”

For example, the Cavs have only one solid inside player, but instead of going to Williams early to get UVa center Elton Brown in foul trouble, Wake fired away from outside. The Deacons still are looking for the important balance provided when they are effective with their inside game, their outside game and some effective penetration.

More importantly, no go-to player has emerged. The front line has struggled, Strickland's judgment is questionable and Levy tends to play in the background.

That leaves the three guards: Paul appears to have the skills and the moxie needed to succeed in the clutch, but he still plays with too much deference to his teammates at times. Downey seems to be a clutch shooter, but he too seems unsure about whether it's his place or not. Gray has both the skills and the desire, but his judgment seems lacking at times, too, both on his shot selection and his driving decisions.

So Prosser can continue to tinker with his lineup down the stretch, adjusting to the various game-day conditions, but he must be careful to define some roles along the way.

Concerned About Congeniality?

Prosser recently pointed to another factor that could play a role in a number of things: He thinks his team is too nice.

There's no doubt that this year's Wake Forest bunch is as about as together as a team can be. All the players hang out with each other, and they're always clowning around and having a good time. They're extremely pleasant to be around — for fans, media members, athletic department employees and just about everyone else.

But that can play against a team sometimes. When a coach is looking for a leader or someone to take control in the final minutes, he often wants the guy with just that little touch of arrogance or bravado to step out from the others. Through the end of January, which is getting pretty late in the team-building process, the Deacons still seemed reluctant to do that to each other.

Without a scholarship senior, Wake's elders are its three juniors: Downey, Levy and Danelius. But all three are soft-spoken and fun-loving, and they haven't really had to step forward to this point in their careers. As freshmen, they were behind a five-man senior class. Last season, Josh Howard clearly was the main man.

The Deacons' fun, polite approach to the game can affect their intensity as well. Prosser warned them before the Maryland game that their season might be over if their aggressiveness didn't improve, but it took actually looking over the cliff to get the Deacs to finally pick up the pace.

“It came from within,” Prosser said of the comeback. “It was almost like the season in many ways might have been hanging on the precipice. I told them at practice: We have to play with a sense of urgency, not a sense of desperation. In all frankness, in the second half, we probably played with a sense of desperation.”

Wake's attitude also has prevented it from showing much aggression toward the other team. Gray reminded many of Randolph Childress with his toughness last season, but he hasn't shown quite that same fire this season. Strickland, Levy and Visser have shown streaks of aggression, but it's spotty and sometimes out of control.

“It's nice to win the congeniality award,” Prosser said. “We have really nice kids, and I say that all the time. I wouldn't trade this bunch of kids for anyone in America, but ACC games are usually not family reunions. What has impressed me about the ACC, among other things, is that there's a lot of mutual respect between the teams, between the players. They know one another from all-star games, summer basketball, what have you. But sometimes we take fraternization to a new level.”

Perhaps Wake just needs more visits from Gary Williams and the Terps, who always seem to move Wake's intensity level up several notches. The Deacons even picked up two technical fouls in that game, then showed some more fire against the Cavaliers. Can the Deacs keep it up for the rest of the year on their own?