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Near Breaking Point, Team Turns Around

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

WINSTON-SALEM —By mid-February this season, everyone involved with the Wake Forest basketball team was well past the point of frustration. That was one of the few topics on which the fans, coaches and players all could agree. Since beating North Carolina on Dec. 20, the Deacons were 7-6, with all but one of the wins coming against non-conference patsies or ACC bottom-feeders Clemson and Virginia. The lone bright spot was a home win over Maryland, in which the Deacons put together one great half, which may have been their only extended stretch of good basketball against a quality team in two months. The Wake Forest fans were growing increasingly restless, and the players and coaches were getting chippy. In the Feb. 7 loss at home to UNC, on several occasions Wake players (notably Jamaal Levy and Vytas Danelius) exchanged frustrated, heat-of-the-moment words with coach Skip Prosser and/or assistant Jeff Battle after being pulled from the game. The team's internal anger may have peaked with an incident involving sophomore swingman Trent Strickland before the Clemson game. A frustrated Strickland was set off in practice when a foul wasn't called, and he ended up leaving the court. He refused Prosser's order to return, and the coach left the player home on the trip to Clemson. The Wake players'post-Strickland mood wasn't exactly the place the coach wanted his team, which had lost six of its last eight. But the Deacons handled Clemson on the road, then played a game that could define its season against Cincinnati. Other than in one stretch, the Deacs dominated a good Bearcats team. More importantly, they put together almost all of the elements that had been missing throughout the losing streak. Most importantly, perhaps, Wake showed some emotional fire and translated that into rebounding and defense, Prosser's staples. The Deacons had been noticeably bland and leaderless during their struggles. They lacked a player who was willing to step up and get in the face of an opponent or a teammate. That turned into problems in areas that require extra effort, such as rebounding and forcing turnovers. In their first 11 games, all wins, the Deacons had fewer turnovers than their opponent nine times. That happened just three times in the next eight. Wake won or tied the rebounding battle nine times in its first 11 games, then just four times in the next eight. Against Clemson and Cincinnati combined, Wake had more rebounds and fewer turnovers. The rebounding feat was particularly impressive, considering that Clemson was second in the league in rebound margin and that Cincinnati fields a number of athletic big men. Paul Leading Aggressive Charge Freshman point guard Chris Paul didn't hesitate to say what had changed: “Defensive intensity. During the losing streak, we weren't in the passing lane. We weren't playing with great emotion, but today we were pumped up, got in the passing lane.” Paul himself provided a missing element when he showed much more of a tendency to take over the game. While he had shown the ability to do it all season, he hadn't shown the will most of the time, preferring to be deferential to his older teammates. But against the Tar Heels, his emotional fire began to show on the court. He traded talk with Carolina point guard Raymond Felton all game, and he made sure he got a subtle forearm into center Sean May's head as they untangled after a loose ball. Against Cincinnati, his attitude again was noticeable, as he jawed with the Bearcats'guards. Paul also translated that fire into his play on offense. Early in the season, he seemed more willing to push the offense, but as Wake struggled, he seemed more content to pass. In the first 11 games, he shot 11.1 times a game. In the next seven, that fell to 6.9 a game. Perhaps inspired by the matchup against Felton, who pushes the ball to the basket at every opportunity, Paul started to get more aggressive. Against UNC, Clemson and Cincinnati, he averaged 11 shots. The pressure of Paul's presence was felt immediately and constantly by the Bearcats. As Wake raced to a 14-5 lead, he scored eight points and assisted on two open three-pointers after penetrating. “It's hard to win when their point guard has the ball at the basket constantly,”Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins said. “He took the ball at the goal any time he wanted. He destroyed us.” Against Cincinnati, Wake also found sparks from two long-missing inside players, Danelius and sophomore center Eric Williams. Danelius, troubled for some time by injuries, homesickness and other emotional woes, finally showed sparks of returning to his old form, although he still has a long way to go. He showed some emotion, battled inside and knocked down two three-pointers within the flow of the offense. Williams, who had been benched for the first time in his career, finally may have tired of people questioning his manhood. He played much more aggressively inside, even dunking several times to answer the charge given to him over and over in every practice by the coaching staff. Zone Success Confidence-Building Against Cincinnati, Wake also actually attacked a zone defense for one of the first times in Prosser's three-year tenure. Zones traditionally have put a halt on the Deacons, causing them to passively throw the ball around the outside until the clock runs down. When the Bearcats went to a 1-3-1, that's exactly what happened at first. But Wake finally began attacking, sometimes with individual drives and sometimes off set plays, which many people were beginning to wonder if the Deacons even had in the playbook. Levy penetrated a gap for a basket, and Paul found Strickland on a lob behind the zone. Wake fed Williams inside three times for dunks. That set up two three-pointers, which also were helped by extra-quick and crisp ball reversal. That's something the Deacons haven't shown very often this season. “We were able to get inside the zone,”Prosser said. “For too long a stretch there, we were just on the periphery of the zone and not attacking the heart of the zone.” It's difficult to hang a season on one game, but without a victory against Cincinnati, it's possible that the young Deacons might have folded their tents. They would have headed into the stretch run of the ACC season with little to build on and little confidence, hoping at best to be a bubble NCAA team. “In the first half (against Cincinnati), we were down 12 and perhaps on the precipice of getting knocked out in our own building,”Prosser said. “And the way our season has gone, the fragility of our team, based on our relative youth, is a genuine concern at all times. But I thought coming off the canvas at that time and even getting the lead at halftime perhaps was the most telling period.” With the win, the whole tone of the season changed. In an NCAA Tournament-type game, the Deacons showed reasons —energy and passion, to go with their obvious ability —to believe that this team has the chance to put it back together at some point before it's too late. “It gave us a lot of confidence,”Paul said. “That's one thing that our team really needs right now. That losing streak, a lot of people put their heads down and lost confidence. This really let us know that if we play together and play with great intensity, we can beat anybody.” But that will be the question for the rest of the year: Did anything really change, or was Cincinnati just a happy blip on the radar of a lost season? The Deacons have shown they can generate a high level of intensity against Maryland and Cincinnati, two teams that challenge you and push your buttons at every turn. Can Wake create that drive on its own? If it does, look for Paul, though just a freshman, to be the one who takes over and initiates it.