February 7, 2006
WINSTON-SALEM -- With this season all but over for the Wake Forest basketball team, perhaps it's more important to start dissecting the future of the program, rather than the present.
This year's problems have been documented thoroughly, and the team will boast a new look next year. So what's the big-picture view of the Demon Deacons right now?
It's a mixed bag.
Beyond the Xs and Os, coach Skip Prosser has helped to bring an excitement to students, alumni and casual fans that hasn't existed in the past. Wake basketball is cool locally, something that's only rarely been said in previous years.
Still, recent games have shown that it's difficult to build loyalty in just a few years. For the Florida State game, on a Tuesday night, the upper deck was about half-full and the bottom deck about 80 percent full. This despite the fact that all of the tickets had been sold.
Apparently, fun things such as Wake's introductions with the motorcycle and "Welcome To The Jungle" become a lot less exciting when an intimidating team doesn't follow them onto the court. Still, everyone agrees that Prosser's off-the-court actions in many areas have generated major improvements for the program.
On the court, Prosser's honeymoon is long over in the eyes of most fans. While few are calling for his head, most now will openly question his decisions and abilities. His Wake teams all have had flaws, many of which are recurring and have been detailed in this space and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, many fans and media outlets are talking about Prosser leaving for other spots, namely Cincinnati. This certainly would be a good time to jump ship. (Not that the Bearcats look as if they will be very good any time soon, either.) Next year looks potentially depressing for the Deacons, and Prosser has found out how tough it is to win consistently in the ACC -- or even in Wake's home state, for that matter.
Cincinnati's recruiting standards won't be as tough. Prosser loves Cincinnati -- he still has a home there -- and most of Cincinnati loves him. He's admittedly a "big-city guy" who likes to be able to take a late-night walk and end up somewhere interesting. The odds of doing that in Winston-Salem are slim. The coach's wife reportedly has similar feelings.
In addition, Prosser may look back at his decision to turn down Pittsburgh in 2003 as a missed opportunity, instead of a good decision. At the time, he thought the Big East might fall apart, but now it appears that it will become a basketball powerhouse.
According to Sports Journal sources, there is some mutual interest between Prosser and key people at Cincinnati, but there's no "secret deal" in place, and it's possible that the potential marriage will stop short of a proposal for financial reasons.
Cincinnati is paying Huggins $3.1 million for his buyout. Prosser would cost more than $1 million per year in total compensation, and the Bearcats also would have to pay millions just to buy Prosser out of his Wake Forest contract.
It's considered questionable whether Cincinnati president Nancy Zimpher, who has called the school's basketball program a liability, would be willing to spend that kind of money. It would be much easier to name interim coach Andy Kennedy as a full-time coach or go after a younger guy such as Kevin Stallings of Vanderbilt, Jim Christian of Kent State or Brian Gregory of Dayton. It would keep the program mostly out of the limelight and prevent questions about the university's priorities.
Of course, Zimpher also has to balance what she'd lose from donors if she lets the program fall on hard times, and Prosser is extra-attractive because of his reputation for integrity and his career-long emphasis on academics.
If it did happen, it could start an odd scenario in which Wake Forest pursues John Beilein of West Virginia, a favorite of Wake athletic director Ron Wellman, and West Virginia pursues Huggins, an alum of WVU. Beilein, then at Richmond, was known to be one of the Demon Deacons' other top targets back when they hired Prosser in 2001.
HUGE CONCERN: RECRUITING TRENDS
Of course, some of the scenario above is pure speculation. For now, let's assume that Prosser -- with his pros and cons -- will be in Winston-Salem for at least a few more years.
So, with the first two elements of the program (coaching, fan interest) still being at least slight positives for the future, that leaves recruiting as the third element to examine.
This always has been the problem spot for the Demon Deacons. Wake rarely has made an impact on the college basketball scene nationally, and it has paid the price for that on the recruiting trail. If not for the development of lower-profile signees such as Tim Duncan, Randolph Childress and Josh Howard, the Deacons' past might have been really unpleasant.
Even players such as Chris Paul and Eric Williams have had asterisks. Paul was local, and Wake got on him very early. Williams, while not exactly local, was an in-state player whom the Deacons pursued hard before other big programs got involved. Center Loren Woods of Missouri was Wake's lone high-profile, out-of-state, in-demand signee in recent memory, and he clashed with coach Dave Odom, then transferred to Arizona.
When Duke, North Carolina and others are in your conference, the price for not recruiting at their level is high. Prosser likely will have to pay it again next season.
He came away with little to show for the days of Howard, Paul, Justin Gray and Williams. After this season, four more starters will leave: Gray, Williams, swingman Trent Strickland and forward Chris Ellis.
Prosser will be left with two upperclassmen: walk-on Michael Drum and center Kyle Visser. He'll have five sophomores and five freshmen. None of the returning players has shown that he will be much more than a complementary player as an upperclassman.
That leaves it up to the freshmen, which is always a scary proposition. The incoming class has some talent, but Prosser didn't sign a top-25 player, which normally makes the potential for a huge immediate impact relatively small.
The recruiting tight rope is a thin one. Prosser made more offers to more big-time prospects this past year than ever before in Wake history. If center Greg Oden and point guard Mike Conley had fallen Wake's way on signing day in November, instead of toward Ohio State, this discussion would be unnecessary. Wake would be one of the most talked-about programs in the country heading into 2006-07, and Prosser and his staff would have more cache on the recruiting trail than they would know what to do with.
But Oden and Conley wound up with the Buckeyes, and most of the other big names Prosser wooed went elsewhere, including a number of them to other ACC schools. So Wake likely is staring down the barrel of another extremely difficult season.
HISTORY SHOWS REBOUND POSSIBLE
So can Wake recover from a slip off the cliff? That would put Prosser out on the recruiting trail with two straight bad seasons, hardly a recipe for success when you're already fighting uphill.
History says that it's possible. Looking at the records of the 11 ACC coaches who make up the top-10 lists for overall victories and ACC victories, five never had a significant dropoff season (several games below .500 in the league) after their first four years: Dean Smith, Frank McGuire, Gary Williams, Vic Bubas and Dave Odom.
However, the other six -- Mike Krzyzewski, Bobby Cremins, Lefty Driesell, Terry Holland, Norm Sloan and Carl Tacy -- all suffered through some lousy seasons.
Driesell slipped to a 3-9 ACC record in 1978, but Maryland won the conference by 1980. Holland fell to 3-11 in 1985, and while he couldn't recover to Ralph Sampson levels, Virginia bounced back to be consistently competitive. Sloan slipped to 3-9 in 1979, but N.C. State went 9-5 in 1980 and (under Jim Valvano) won the national title in 1983. At Wake, Tacy put together three strong seasons in the mid-1970s before slipping to 3-9 in 1979 and 4-10 in 1980. He responded by putting together four of Wake's best seasons.
Cremins had built the Georgia Tech program from nothing into an ACC force. He had been to the NCAA Tournament 10 times, but he slipped in 1997. Stephon Marbury left early (Paul, anyone?), and Tech went 3-13 in the league. Cremins never recovered, going 6-10, 6-10 and 5-11 in consecutive years before leaving. The program took seven years to return to being a force, going to the Final Four in 2004 under Paul Hewitt.
Krzyzewski had been to seven Final Fours and won two national titles when he slipped in 1995. Grant Hill departed, and Krzyzewski was left with a bunch of parts that weren't as good as they had looked when he recruited them: Cherokee Parks, Jeff Capel, Eric Meek, Chris Collins and Greg Newton. Freshmen Trajan Langdon, Ricky Price and Steve Wojciechowski weren't impact players.
Krzyzewski missed most of the season with medical (exhaustion, back, etc.) problems, and Duke went 2-14. But the next season, Krzyzewski managed to get a rag-tag bunch (most of the same above, minus Parks, Capel and an injured Langdon, and plus Taymon Domzalski) back to .500 in the league. A year later, he brought in Nate James, Chris Carrawell, Mike Chappell and transfer Roshown McLeod. The next year, Duke was completely back, recruiting William Avery, Shane Battier, Chris Burgess and Elton Brand.
So, can Prosser and Wake recover? Certainly. But it won't be easy. Few of the coaches above had consecutive drop-off seasons, so the biggest coaching accomplishment might be to get Wake back to just .500 in the league next year. That could point the program back in the right direction, including on the recruiting trail.