March 10, 2003 WINSTON-SALEM As one of the finest regular seasons in Wake Forest basketball history came to a close, several important questions remained. Some may be answered by the end of the ACC Tournament, but another won't have a conclusion for at least another year. First, and most important, is this: How much respect will Wake receive from the NCAA selection committee?
The Deacons have run below the national radar all season, and few seem to be giving much credence to their bid for a No. 1 seed. Most critics say the ACC is having a down year (a common theme recently), while league members including Wake coach Skip Prosser keep saying that the rest of the country just doesn't understand.
The battle appears to be for the final No. 1 seed. Arizona, Kentucky and a Big 12 team (Texas?) appear to have the inside track on three of the four. Wake Forest could be battling another Big 12 team (Kansas?) plus Pittsburgh and Marquette, to whom the Deacs lost earlier this season.
That Marquette loss hurt badly, because it's actually the Golden Eagles' biggest win of the season. Both teams beat Wisconsin, but Wake won in Madison, and Marquette won at home. That victory is Wake Forest's only out-of-conference bragging point, as Wisconsin went on to win the Big Ten regular-season title and didn't lose another game at home. Pittsburgh has little out-of-conference success to talk about, losing at Georgia in its only big test. Kansas will be tougher, with the weight of an excellent conference and wins at Tulsa and California on its side.
For the ACC not to have a No. 1 seed would be a rarity. The league claimed one every year since 1991, except for 1996. In that span, five ACC teams have won national titles. The 1995-96 season also involved Wake Forest, in a situation that looked a lot like this year. When seeding happened, Wake was 23-5, had won the ACC Tournament and was ranked No. 9 nationally. However, it had finished second in the regular season. The Deacons took a No. 2 seed and won three games before falling to No. 1 seed Kentucky.
If the Deacons sweep the ACC Tournament, they'll have more history on their
side. Since 1979, nine ACC teams won or shared the regular-season title, then
won the ACC Tournament. Eight were No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, save
for Georgia Tech in 1985. The Yellow Jackets finished in a three-way tie in
the regular season at
9-5, then won the tournament and was 24-7 and ranked No. 6 heading into the Big Dance.
So, since the NCAA began seeding teams in 1979, no ACC team that has been the outright regular-season champion and tournament winner has been denied a No. 1 seed. The Deacons can only win and hope.
Williams: Interesting Puzzle Piece
The second question is an on-court one: How is Prosser feeling about Eric Williams?
Williams has been an enigma in his freshman season. Sometimes he looks like an agile, powerful center a rarity in college basketball these days and other times he's watching from the bench.
Since the first N.C. State game on Feb. 6, Prosser has developed an interesting strategy one that shows little confidence in Williams. In that game, N.C. State was trying to single-team Williams, and he finished with 16 points and five rebounds. But the Wolfpack was winning the game. Prosser pulled Williams, despite the fact that he scored three of Wake's first five baskets in the second half. The coaching staff believed that without Williams, the Deacs would be able to play better defense against the spread-the-floor Pack.
Williams never re-entered, and Wake pulled away. Since then, Prosser has followed a similar pattern in most games. He plays the closing stretch, usually at least the last 10 minutes, sometimes more, with a lineup of Taron Downey, Justin Gray, Jamaal Levy, Josh Howard and Vytas Danelius. He often throws Trent Strickland in for a few minutes. But Williams and Chris Ellis don't see the court. That changed slightly in the season finale against N.C. State, when Prosser again pulled Williams early in the second half, but then inserted the more mobile Ellis for a few minutes. Ellis played well in his short burst.
But in the two N.C. State games, the Wolfpack outscored Wake 86-81 during
the first halves and the early second-half stretches with Williams in the lineup.
From the point he left the court
in the second halves, Wake outscored N.C. State 70-44 combined.
Offensively, the numbers have dropped dramatically for Williams and Ellis. Williams scored four or more baskets in eight of Wake's first 12 games. He's done it once since. Ellis averaged 5.8 points through 11 games but has scored 21 in 16 games since.
However, the Deacons' defense has been stronger since this pattern began. In the seven ACC games in January, Wake allowed opponents to shoot 42 percent. Since then and since Prosser changed his strategy Wake has held opponents to 39 percent.
But without Williams, the Deacons are not the same rebounding team. While Williams is not the team's top rebounder, he occupies space and bodies in the lane, allowing other quicker Deacons to get to the glass. Since ACC play started, Williams has played 23 or more minutes in six games. Wake has a plus-10.5 rebound margin in those games. In the other 12, when Williams hasn't played as much, Wake's margin is plus-5.3.
The Maryland games provide a good case study. In the first matchup, Williams played 28 minutes, scored 16 points and grabbed six rebounds. Wake out-rebounded Maryland 49-36 and won 81-72. In the second, Williams was in foul trouble, playing 15 minutes with six points and no rebounds. Wake lost the rebound battle 44-24 and the game 90-67.
Obviously, Prosser must pull the right strings at the right times in the postseason with Williams. This season, nobody will be surprised if the coach pulls it off.
Howard Decisions: Simple Or Hard?
The third question is one that won't be settled until next season probably.
Many pushed for Josh Howard's jersey to be retired in his final home game, but it didn't happen. Wake held a very small ceremony before the game, to recognize Howard and fellow senior Steve Lepore.
While most fans believed the jersey should be retired, school officials were less sure, wanting to see how Howard's career played out much as Maryland did with Juan Dixon last year. The caution was noble, as retiring Howard's jersey would tie the Deacons for the most retired numbers in the ACC (10) with Duke.
Also, some in the athletic department have a difficult time forgetting Howard's early career attitude, mainly his feud with coach Dave Odom, including publicly quitting on him in the NCAA Tournament. Many others insist that the maturity he's gained since then should put that blemish in the past.
Certainly, few Deacons have had a season like Howard's this year, but that's no guarantee. While Wake has retired the jerseys of all six of its ACC players of the year, Duke, UNC and N.C. State have retired only 12 of their 24. One school official said: If this program is going to be as good as we think it can be, we can't hang every player of the year.
As the awards go up, the conclusions don't get clearer. The ACC has had 38 consensus All-Americans (as Howard is likely to be), and only 26 are retired. ACC players have won 14 consensus national player of the year awards, and 12 had their jerseys retired. As an aside, it's interesting to note that Howard might lose that award to David West of Xavier. Odom placed West at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia the same year he got Howard there. But Prosser snuck West from under Odom to Xavier instead. Think Prosser's kicking himself a little now?
Many place hanging a jersey on career numbers. Howard's case could go either way again. Of Wake's nine retired jerseys, eight made first-team All-ACC at least twice. The other was Muggsy Bogues, who left Wake as the all-time leader in two categories (assists, steals). Howard will be first-team All-ACC just once and will not lead any categories. As far as team success, he will rank about fourth on the list, trailing Randolph Childress, Tim Duncan and Len Chappell in winning percentage and postseason success.
Howard's career averages won't shock anyone: about 14 points and 6.5 rebounds. For comparison, Chris King averaged 15.2 points and 6.1 rebounds. In fact, his career statistics won't be much different than Darius Songaila, who graduated last year, didn't have any ugly incidents in his past, but didn't have any swell of support for jersey retirement, either. The two will have basically the same number of points and rebounds, and Songaila finished in Wake's top 10 in eight major positive statistical categories to six for Howard.
In the end, unless Wake folds dramatically in the postseason, the fact that Howard so single-handedly powered the program to such a great season probably will put him over the top. Expect Prosser to use the jersey retirement next season as a motivational tool for a big game.