August 5, 2002 WINSTON-SALEM - In the summer, a young fan's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of basketball Ö or at least it does at Wake Forest, where football hasn't become a year-round obsession yet.
In the Sports Journal's never-ending pursuit of the truth, here's a closer look at a few of Wake fans' summer obsessions:
- "Wake could average 90 points or more a game this year." The reason behind this comment is that coach Skip Prosser will have a deep, athletic roster that could allow him to play his up-tempo style. However, 90 points a game is rarified air. If the Deacons had that kind of talent, they'd probably be talking about national championship hopes. Eight teams in ACC history averaged more than 90 points a game: 1965 Duke; 1973-75 N.C. State; 1987, 1989 UNC; 1991, 2001 Duke. Those teams were some of the best the league has ever seen. Their composite record was 238-30 (88.8 percent) overall and 97-13 (88.2) in the ACC. They captured six regular-season titles and two runners-up, plus five ACC Tournament titles and three runners-up. In the NCAA Tournament, they were 20-3 with two titles and one runner-up. So what can we expect from Prosser? He never felt comfortable with last year's team in his pressing defense, so nobody had much of a chance to judge it. However, it's a fact that Prosser never averaged 90 points a game in his seven seasons at Xavier. In fact, he didn't even average 80 points a game during that time. (The overall average was 78.7, with a season high of 83.9 in his first year.) Still, that's a lot closer to 90 than Dave Odom ever came. Wake averaged 69.7 points a game over that same seven-year span. Interestingly, Wake averaged 76.5 in Odom's last year, while Xavier averaged 73.4 in Prosser's final year.
- "You can't win if you have to rely heavily on underclassmen."
This is important because the Deacons likely will start four underclassmen with senior Josh Howard.
Fact: In the 30 years since freshmen became eligible, 15 teams have won either the ACC regular-season title, tournament title or both while primarily starting at least three underclassmen. That list includes Wake in 1995, when it tied for the regular-season crown and won the tournament by mixing sophomore Tim Duncan, sophomore Ricardo Peral and freshman Jerry Braswell with seniors Scooter Banks and Randolph Childress. Three teams have done it with four underclassmen: 1978 Duke, 1993 Georgia Tech and 2001 Duke.
This phenomenon has become more prevalent as seniors have become less prevalent in college basketball. In the first 20 years of freshman eligibility, eight ACC teams won titles while starting three or more underclassmen. In the last 10 years, seven have done it.
- "Eric Williams is the key to the Deacons' season," or "Eric
Williams will have a big impact next season."
It's obvious that Williams, a touted freshman, is the only true center with a chance to see legitimate playing time for the Deacons next year. The questions are: How much time, and what will he do with that time?
History shows that freshman centers haven't made major impacts in the ACC. The exceptions to that rule have turned into some of the league's greatest players. For the rest, the speed and strength of the opposition generally has been too difficult for players used to dominating high schoolers.
Only four centers have led the ACC's freshman class in scoring: Mike Gminski (1977), Ralph Sampson (1980), J.R. Reid (1987) and Joe Smith (1994). (Yes, Reid played a lot of forward, too.) Smith was the only freshman center to lead his team in scoring.
More reasonable Wake Forest supporters realize that the Deacons won't really be looking for Williams to be a major scorer this year. With those fans in mind, let's dig a little deeperÖ.
From 1973-2002, the ACC featured 107 freshmen who were listed at 6-10 or better. Their cumulative average was 4.8 points a game. Wake had nine of those players, and only three even reached triple figures in points: Jim Johnstone (8.1 points, 5.3 rebounds in 1979), Mike Scott (8.9, 5.8 in 1986) and Tim Duncan (9.8, 9.6 in 1994).
Size can be a factor in another way: If Williams plays at his current listed weight of 280 pounds, he'll be tied for the second-heaviest freshman player in ACC history with former UNC center Neil Fingleton. Former Florida State sideshow Nigel Dixon tops the list, at 350 pounds.
In ACC history, only 13 freshmen have played at 250 pounds or more. Wake had the league's first, Danny Moses (6-10, 250), who scored eight points in eight games. The cumulative average of this group is 6.5 points a game. Only three had a real impact: Gminski (1977), Sharone Wright (12.0 points, 8.1 rebounds in 1992) and Carlos Boozer (13.0, 6.3 in 2000).
So the Deacons might be hoping Williams has a freshman season like Wright had for Clemson. But history indicates they're more likely to get a season like the one produced by another touted North Carolina prep big man: Brendan Haywood. Although he finished his career as a second-team All-ACC pick, Haywood started his time with the Tar Heels by averaging 2.9 points and 2.4 rebounds. Prosser may already understand this.
"(Williams) can be a good player in this league, but a lot is going to depend upon his adjustment," Prosser said. "And it's a big jump. He had a big jump coming from high school to playing against the guys he played against in all-star games, but that doesn't even approximate the jump he's going to make when he's trying to play against men in the ACC.
"He's going to have to adjust from playing where he's always the biggest and strongest guy on the floor to playing against men who are four and five years older. He's going to have to improve his strength and his size in order to play against guys like that."
In fact, Prosser might be thinking a lot more about how fellow freshman Chris Ellis - slightly smaller and more mobile - might be able to adjust more quickly to the college game.
"(Ellis has) good strength, and potentially he can get stronger,"Prosser said. "He's got pretty good skills. He's not the deep, deep shooter perhaps that his father (former NBA star Dale Ellis) was, but he's going to be someone we're counting on to play a lot right from the day he's on campus."
Anyone who reads those two quotes should be thinking about how Ellis and sophomore Vytas Danelius would look together on the front line, in a lineup without a true center.
Football: Do Deacs Play Dirty?
Watch the penalty totals for Wake's offense this fall.
Two opposing coaches and one prominent player already have gone on record to complain about the Deacons' blocking techniques: UNC's John Bunting and Virginia's Al Groh, plus Florida State defensive end Alonzo Jackson.
"Wake Forest is the dirtiest-playing team I've ever played against," Jackson said. "It ought to be investigated by somebody. I'm serious. We looked at the tape from last year, and they were trying to cut me from behind the whole game. On one play, the ball was 20 yards down the field and they tried to cut me from behind. My back was turned on them. That's just wrong. It shouldn't be allowed to happen."
This should come to no surprise to Wake coach Jim Grobe or three of his assistants, who all honed their craft at Air Force, which often was accused of the same thing. More often, the Deacons are accused not of blocking from behind but of blocking below the waist.
Here's the rub: Blocking a player below the waist generally is permitted in college football on non-kicking plays, with the major exceptions of (1) wideouts coming back toward the ball and (2) any offensive player attacking a defender who already is engaged with another blocker. Otherwise, blocking a player below the waist is largely legal. (The exact rules are somewhat complex.) Blocking from behind, while illegal in some circumstances, also is permitted in a designated area near the the line of scrimmage. Nevertheless, few teams make regular use of these practices as the Deacons do, and defensive players and coaches hate the tactics because of the potential for injury.
Grobe's system relies on mobile linemen who can attack defensive players at any time, from almost any angle. While some coaches and fans argue this point on a moral or ethical level, most of the time what Wake does is perfectly within current NCAA rules.
However, it will be interesting to see if increased complaints bring increased scrutiny, and if the extra attention brings additional flags. As impressive as the Deacs were in last year's 6-5 surprise, they're not a team that has enough talent to overcome more obstacles. Their five Division I-A wins last season were by an average of about a field goal.
Prosser Claiming In-State Turf
Prosser's in-state recruiting haul - seven of his first eight additions (five 2002 signees/three early 2003 commitments) have North Carolina roots - is doing more than just bringing talented players to Wake. The coach is setting in place a network of players and coaches who can bring in other players.
Programs that recruit players from 10 different states don't form much of a power bloc. But when a team can begin to dominate an area, the players and coaches in the region are more likely to know or be able to influence other future targets.
Another side benefit could be that Wake will put more people in the seats. Who do you think will bring a bigger entourage - a player from three states away or three hours away? In addition, local players could build the familiarity and interest from casual fans in the Winston-Salem area. They may have seen a number of these players during their high school careers or in all-star games and may want to follow their progress.
At Wake Forest, where Odom and Prosser both have complained about fan support during home games, every little bit helps.