March 31, 2005
WINSTON-SALEM Football coach Jim Grobe and basketball coach Skip Prosser both arrived to take over their Wake Forest programs in the same season. They quickly became supporters of each other.
This year, they had a lot to talk about.
The honeymoon officially ended for both coaches in the same season, and it happened largely for the same reason: While their results were better than usual for the program, they didn't match the high expectations they themselves had built up in recent years.
Prosser's season couldn't have flamed out in much worse fashion. Chris Paul's punch to Julius Hodge's groin was played over and over around the country. Without Paul, Wake went out with hardly a whimper in the first round of the ACC Tournament, then (after Paul fouled out) was upset in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Throw in Prosser's complaints about his No. 2 NCAA seed (despite not winning the ACC regular season or ACC Tournament), and you have a mess on your hands.
That left most fans many expected a Final Four run staring straight at Prosser's postseason record, the same one the Sports Journal has been pointing to for several seasons.
For his career, Prosser is 11-10 in 12 conference tournaments. He's won more than one game only twice, and he hasn't done it in the last seven years. He's 6-9 in the NCAA Tournament, winning more than one game in a season only once (last year).
Since he arrived at Wake Forest, Prosser has never finished lower than third in the league during the regular season. But he's 2-4 in the ACC Tournament and 5-4 in the NCAA Tournament, winning as many as two games in either one only once (last year).
Do all reasonable observers admire Prosser for everything he's done at Wake Forest? Certainly. He's built a hot program on campus, in town and nationally. He's winning at rates never before seen around the program.
But the postseason matters in college basketball. Just ask N.C. State's Herb Sendek. Despite being cursed up and down all season long by his own fan base, Sendek has managed to keep his job largely by going 13-9 in the ACC Tournament, including three appearances in the title game. He also finally broke through to the Sweet 16 this year.
In the end this season, the same elements that have been discussed ad nauseam here and in other places brought Prosser down, especially Wake's inability to defend.
But is there more to Prosser's postseason problems? Does it have something to do with his coaching when the games are more grind-it-out types?
Veteran Wake Forest beat writer Dan Collins of the Winston-Salem Journal asked Prosser that question, and the coach's rambling answer seemed to show that he didn't have much of an idea, either, beyond the obvious focus on his team's defensive shortcomings.
"I've thought about that," Prosser said. "I don't know the answer to that. I don't know why that would necessarily be true. It's simple. We have to guard better.
"I think the core things we're trying to do have been very successful at Wake Forest. If you look at who has won more games in the ACC (regular season) the last three years, no one has. If you look at who has won more games in the last four years than Wake Forest, only one team has, and it's Duke. I'm not sure what the numbers were the four years before we got here.
"But like I said, when the expectations are so high, and when you have that bad 20 minutes that makes you fall short, then you question everything. You question what you're teaching defensively. You question what your game-day routine is, when you're eating your pre-game meals. I don't know if I would put much stock in that.
"Carolina, they play similar to the way we play, and they seem to be fine in the postseason. I do notice that obviously the scores are much lower in the NCAA Tournament. But again, it was 40-27 at the half (against West Virginia). And in the second half, we didn't have that defensive edge. That's my task, to try to figure out why that didn't happen."
So what about next year, or the years beyond?
Well, as stated previously, the program's long-range future likely will hang on how Prosser does with his recruiting targets in the Class of 2006. If he can't land the big guns he's hoping for, it could mean a fall back to the middle of the pack for Wake.
In the short term, next season remains a big question mark. It all starts with Paul, who is popping up as a top-five overall pick in some mock drafts, written not by internet bumpkins but by well-connected NBA sportswriters. Sports Journal sources in the professional ranks confirmed that Paul is a lock for the lottery whenever he comes out, and that his appeal ranks behind only UNC's Marvin Williams among ACC prospects.
If Paul doesn't return (sources said it's still 50-50), Wake will have no proven point guard. Its starting backcourt might have to be an out-of-position Justin Gray at point guard, plus an out-of-position Trent Strickland or freshman Harvey Hale at shooting guard. That's not good. If Paul returns, the outlook obviously is dramatically better. Still, Prosser would have no natural point guard to back up Paul.
Strickland and Chris Ellis, the likely 2005-06 starters at small and power forward, have shown talent but little consistency. Same with backup center Kyle Visser. Incoming freshman front-liners Kevin Swinton and David Weaver will have to be able to contribute for Wake to have any reliable depth.
Paul, Gray and Eric Williams probably would be enough to keep Wake at or near the top of the league standings next season, but the rest of the cast has enough question marks to keep the predictions on the conservative side.
Numbers Analyze Players, Lineups
The ACC Sports Journal used a version of hockey's plus/minus system to analyze 16 games in the second half of Wake's season, and it yielded some interesting results.
The Sports Journal's system adds or subtracts a point for every point the team scores or allows while the player or lineup is on the court, then divides by the player or lineup's time on the court. The result is a rating, such at +.5, which would mean that the Deacons were on average .5 points better than their opponents for each minute that player or lineup played.
The player ratings varied wildly during the analysis, but by the end of the season, most had settled into the same area: about +.275.
Senior forward Jamaal Levy topped the list as the "most valuable" Deacon, as Wake outscored its opponents by an average of .325 points per minute with him on the court. Gray was second at .307. The two least valuable players in the regular rotation were Visser (.139) and senior forward Vytas Danelius (.230).
Looking at the rating by half, Danelius had the biggest swing of any member of the team. In the first halves of games, he was +.4, but in the second, he was .049. Gray also was much better in the first half than the second, going from .472 to .146. The only players who had better second-half ratings than first were Ellis (.061 to .481) and Visser (.056 to .249).
The most consistent Deacon from half to half and the player with the best second-half rating behind Ellis was Paul (.334 to .257).
Here's the full look:
Analyzing lineups also brought out some interesting facts. In the 16 games, Prosser used 77 different combinations, and 11 of them averaged more than a minute a game. Of those 11, the two most effective ones in our system were the two Prosser played the least.
Both were variations of the starting lineup. When Prosser replaced Danelius with Strickland, the Deacons were +.706. Prosser played this lineup in seven of the first 10 games we analyzed, then not at all in the last six. When the coach replaced Paul with Taron Downey, Wake was +.573.
The fourth-best lineup was when Wake replaced Gray with Downey (.426), and the regular starting lineup ranked only seventh of the 11 at .307. The only lineup of the 11 that finished in the negative (outscored by opponents) was when the three guards played with Danelius and Williams (-.365).
Here's the full look:
Key: 0-Chris Ellis, 1-Justin Gray, 3-Chris Paul, 4-Taron Downey, 10-Jamaal Levy, 13-Vytas Danelius, 31-Eric Williams, 33-Trent Strickland, 55-Kyle Visser.
Prosser played six lineups together for at least 12 minutes in the second halves of the games we analyzed. The least effective? Two of the three he played the most: the starting lineup (.059), plus the three guards, Levy and Williams (-.030). The absolute worst was the three guards, Danelius and Williams at -.342.
The best of his frequently played second-half lineups was the three guards, Levy and Danelius, which was +.806. The second-best was the starting lineup, except with Downey instead of Gray (.376).
What about those lineups that didn't play together very often? Which ones maybe should have seen a little more action? The one that jumps out is the three guards, Levy and Ellis, which outscored opponents by 2.022 in 10:23 of play together. Second on the list would be Gray, Downey, Strickland, Ellis and Williams, which was +1.624 in 13:33.
Wondering about next year's likely starting lineup? Paul, Gray, Strickland, Ellis and Williams played together for 7:48 in the games we analyzed. Their rating was -1.542.