January 31, 2005 WINSTON-SALEM Last season, when Wake Forest went down, it went down hard. After the Demon Deacons opened the 2003-04 campaign with 11 straight wins, their loss at Texas immediately was followed by three more. Later, a lost to N.C. State was followed by a home loss against North Carolina. Finally, Wake lost the last two games of the regular season, followed by the first game of the ACC Tournament.
This season, although the Deacons have suffered some defeats, they haven't let them string together. After the loss at Illinois, the Deacs won 10 straight. After falling at Florida State, they responded with a road win against No. 20 Cincinnati. After losing at Georgia Tech, they handled Miami.
Junior center Eric Williams said this year's Wake team is more mature, and therefore more able to let the losses remain in the past.
"We don't want another year like last year, where we lose four in a row. That was an awful feeling," Williams said. "This year, if you lose, you lose. You can't be sitting there dwelling on the past."
The Miami game was particularly important, as it had earmarks of potential trouble. Wake was coming off a draining overtime loss in Atlanta and didn't return home to Winston-Salem until close to three o'clock in the morning. The last time that happened (after the Temple game), Wake almost imploded against Elon.
So the Deacons had little sleep and little prep time for an athletic, surprising Miami team gunning for the upset. With Duke next for Wake, a three-game losing streak wouldn't have been out of the question.
Sophomore point guard Chris Paul appreciated Wake's ability to turn it around, but he also sounded a note of caution.
"We play with a sense of urgency after we lose," Paul said. "We're going to have to be smarter than that and understand that we have to play with a sense of urgency all the time. If you have to lose to win, then it's not going to be a very good season, so we have to stay mentally focused."
Of course, similar words of warning have been floating around the program for two years now. Witness Paul's comments in December: "After the Elon game, we said we have to play with energy and emotion. 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."
It's been a difficult lesson for these players to grasp. After very slow starts at FSU and Georgia Tech, the question of whether these players can motivate themselves especially away from home continues to linger. Wake has played better on the road in 2004-05, but 10 of the team's 13 losses over the last two seasons have been away from Joel Coliseum.
One way for the Deacons to bring more energy and get more into their style of game is to play better defense. But that's been a struggle for a couple of years as well.
Again, it's an area where Wake has shown improvement but too often falls back into old habits. Since ACC play began, Wake's stats are declining. The Deacons held pre-ACC opponents to 41.6 percent shooting, but that figure was 45.3 since ACC play began through the Jan. 29 Miami game.
In addition, Wake is struggling on the boards, which also makes it more difficult to get into a transition game. The Deacons' rebounding margin was 6.7 going into ACC play, but 4.5 since. Those numbers were boosted by early ACC games. In the stretch of UNC, FSU, Cincinnati, Georgia Tech and Miami, Wake was out-rebounded by three overall.
But in Prosser's search for a defense, he may have found something he can use everything, actually. While Prosser is a traditionalist, preferring to stick to man-to-man, he's proved that switching defenses can be good for the Deacons. It's a technique that teams used to utilize more often, and it can confuse opponents, even if only briefly. It also forces the Deacs to concentrate on defense, which sounds simple but often seems to be part of their problem.
Prosser has proven that it can energize them as well. When he's used a triangle-and-two and a 1-3-1 halfcourt trap, his players seem to get into playing defense, which is half the battle. Wake rallied against George Washington with the triangle-and-two, and it used the 1-3-1 to pull away from Miami. Part of the Deacons' success against North Carolina came from an aggressive double-team of the post.
The biggest problem with playing a trapping or junk defense is that it relies on good rotation, which is one of the Deacons' few weaknesses. Wake often makes the first rotation but then fails miserably to make the next one: picking up the first helper's man.
Nevertheless, if Prosser sticks with playing a variety of defenses, it might be to Wake's advantage.
Trends Following Paul, Williams
It will be interesting to see if other teams try to emulate the success Cincinnati and Georgia Tech had against Paul by using a bigger player to guard him.
The Bearcats had success down the stretch after putting 6-7 James White on Paul, and Tech used 6-7 Anthony McHenry. Paul didn't drive around them as you might expect, and they bottled him up physically and clogged his passing lanes with their long arms.
Something that's been overlooked is that one reason teams can afford to use a wing forward in this role is that Wake doesn't get much offense out of its wing forwards. So foes often can get away with playing a guard on 6-9 Jamaal Levy or 6-5 Trent Strickland.
Wake will have to be ready for this tactic and get Paul on the move more, with Levy and Strickland prepared to post up and be more aggressive around the basket.
Meanwhile, Williams has been dominant recently, and his personal improvement from last season is notable.
In each of his first two seasons, Williams faded as ACC play began. Last year from Jan. 8-Jan. 29, he averaged 8.8 points and 6.2 rebounds. This year, he averaged 19.7 points and 8.1 rebounds in the same stretch.
"We've done a lot better as a team," Paul said, "understanding that he's our big ticket."
The Deacons are more willing to feed the post, and Williams is staying on the court much longer than before (almost seven minutes more in ACC play than last season). But Wake still falls into ruts where it loves the three-pointer. Witness the last nine-plus minutes of the Georgia Tech game, when Williams didn't take a shot.
If the Deacons aren't in transition, they should know to let Williams touch the ball before taking a shot until the other team proves it can stop him. That mantra still escapes them (and their coaches) at times.