WINSTON-SALEM – When Wake Forest forward L.D. Williams went down with a wrist injury against Clemson, the question became: Who will step up?
In the four games Williams missed, the answer to that question was mixed, although one surprise bright spot did emerge. The Demon Deacons went 2-2 in that key ACC stretch, letting games against N.C. State and Georgia Tech slip away.
With a more difficult second half of the ACC season, the Deacons may look back at those games as the difference between the NCAA Tournament bubble and the NIT.
Certainly, no one stepped up on defense. The players Williams would have guarded all had good games. Jack McClinton (Miami), Gavin Grant (N.C. State) and Anthony Morrow (Georgia Tech) combined to hit 17 of 30 shots, including 10 of 18 from three-point range.
Virginia point guard Sean Singletary finished with 21 points and beat Wake to the basket repeatedly before the Deacons went to a zone late in the game. The four opponents averaged 19.3 points.
Players who definitely didn't step up were Jamie Skeen and Cameron Stanley.
Skeen, whose toughness Wake coach Dino Gaudio repeatedly questions, got a start and 34 minutes against N.C. State. He hit one of 11 shots, and his minutes have slipped since.
Stanley, the program's only other natural small forward, hasn't seen any minutes since the Williams injury.
Players who stepped up at times included Harvey Hale, who had a couple of his hot streaks; Jeff Teague, who has shown star potential; and David Weaver, who is playing better defense and contributing more.
Freshman forward James Johnson seemed to shrink from the leadership challenge and slumped badly against Miami, N.C. State and Georgia Tech, to the point that he was benched against Tech. That helped motivate him back to his usual form against Virginia.
But the surprise story of the stretch was the sudden appearance of freshman guard Gary Clark. He had not made a shot since banking in a three-pointer against Virginia Tech on Dec. 23, and he hadn't played double-figure minutes since Dec. 8 at Georgia.
Gaudio's consistent statements early in the year that "Gary is a great shooter" had become a running joke with the media. Heading into this stretch, Clark was 7-of-38 from the field (18.4 percent), including 4-of-18 from three-point range (22.2 percent).
Clark didn't even play in the three-game stretch leading up to Georgia Tech, when he suddenly broke out in the first half. He scored eight points and added two assists and two steals in nine minutes, hitting two three-pointers.
"He gave us a terrific lift off the bench in the first half, and that's why we had the lead we did," Gaudio said. "Very happy with Gary's play; (he was a) big contributor with L.D. out of there. He was a bright spot for us tonight."
Clark followed with 16 minutes against Virginia, hitting three of five shots with four rebounds, three assists and a steal.
"It was just all about confidence," point guard Ish Smith said. "Now he's comfortable out there. He's in his rhythm, and he's playing well."
Smith said the key to Clark's new confidence was a scout-team role before the Miami game, when Clark posed as the sharp-shooting McClinton.
"He's been playing great in practice," Smith said. "We put him as McClinton, and he was shooting the crap out of it. He really shot the ball so well, and from then on he's been playing well and giving us a great lift."
While Clark's not exactly ready for All-ACC discussions, his possible emergence is the kind of silver lining every coach hopes to see from an injury. On a team often desperate for offense, Clark's new confidence was a welcome addition.
GROBE LOOKS TO FAMILIAR FACES
Earlier this year, Wake Forest football coach Jim Grobe mentioned that bringing in new assistants might be good, as they bring new ideas with them.
Grobe may get a few new ideas with his two new hires, but in true Grobe tradition he didn't go far from the nest to find them. The Demon Deacons named Steve Russ as one new assistant and likely will name Brian Knorr as the other.
Knorr played quarterback at Air Force when Grobe was an assistant there, then was an assistant under Grobe at Ohio, coaching linebackers and becoming the defensive coordinator. He took over when Grobe went to Wake, going 11-35 at Ohio. He is currently at Air Force under Troy Calhoun, the former Grobe offensive coordinator at Ohio and Wake.
Grobe coached Russ at linebacker at Air Force, and Russ went on to play for the Denver Broncos from 1995-2000. He coached linebackers at Ohio under Knorr, then moved to Syracuse, where he became the defensive coordinator last year.
What positions Knorr and Russ will coach are still undetermined. Tom Elrod moved from fullbacks/tight ends to quarterbacks to replace Jeff Mullen, who became the offensive coordinator at West Virginia. Brad Lambert, who coached linebackers, moved to defensive coordinator to replace Dean Hood, who became the head coach at Division I-AA Eastern Kentucky.
Grobe told Lambert he could pick linebackers or the secondary, which Hood handled. Since Knorr and Russ both have lots of experience at linebacker, look for Lambert to move, as he has extensive experience with the secondary from previous stints at Marshall and Georgia.
It's also been mentioned that Tim Billings could switch from receivers to the secondary, but that seems unlikely now with the hiring of two defensive-minded coaches.
Grobe not only hired coaches he can trust and who will work in his system, but he again beefed up the program's special-teams knowledge. After Wake ranked near the bottom of the ACC in many special-teams areas early in Grobe's career, he brought in Billings. Now he also has Russ, who has extensive special-teams experience as well.
The hiring of Russ, specifically, also may continue to spread Wake out in recruiting. Billings' contacts helped land players from Texas and Missouri in the 2008 class, and Russ may help Wake in the Northeast, an area the Deacons have recruited only rarely under Grobe.