March 7, 2006
WINSTON-SALEM -- This senior class at Wake Forest will leave behind a legacy, but it won't really be for what it did in the victory column.
In some ways, that seems a bit harsh, as this class finished the regular season with 88 career wins, the school's first outright regular-season title in more than 40 years (2003) and its first No. 1 ranking ever (2005).
But by closing their careers at Wake so poorly this season, the seniors -- Chris Ellis, Justin Gray, Trent Strickland and Eric Williams -- almost guaranteed that much of the credit for those accomplishments will go to other players, especially Josh Howard and Chris Paul.
It's not that this class doesn't have talent; its members just seem to fade into the surroundings whenever things really count. But the class will be tied to a couple of legacy items, and they are intertwined in some ways.
This bunch was Prosser's first true recruiting class at Wake Forest, and so it has been partly responsible for the atmosphere changes that have happened around the program. Certainly, the new, exciting aura also was driven by players such as Paul and Howard, the team's successes and the innovations of the coaching staff.
But this class has some particularly engaging personalities, and its fun-loving style helped push the coaching staff toward some of the changes that have been made.
"I'm going to miss playing for the fans," Strickland said. "The atmosphere that we built over the four years has just been great."
But the second part of their legacy is that the fun seemed to go too far. This group really became close friends off the court and really enjoyed playing together. No one begrudges them that. Everyone who plays college sports should be lucky enough to come away with those kinds of things.
However, this class always will be saddled with labels such as "nice" and "soft," and it will be hard to argue with those descriptions.
If you were around these guys for four years, it always seemed like the fun and the goofing they had between themselves took precedence somehow. That might translate onto the court -- e.g., preferring dunks, steals and three-pointers over playing defense and boxing out. It might translate into other things, too, perhaps including the Deacons' seemingly incessant on-court dancing in the few moments before home games and during introductions.
There's a fine line between getting psyched up and looking silly, and when you've won only a couple of games in league play, that line swings to the silly side in a hurry.
There was a fire missing from this group that players such as Randolph Childress, Howard and Paul brought to the game. Even Tim Duncan brought it, although in his case it typically was displayed in work ethic and preparation instead of outward emotion.
Gray seemed to have that fire as a freshman, but it was snuffed out somehow. Maybe Paul's two years did it, maybe his friendship with the rest of the class, or maybe something else. This year, Gray had to deal with the distraction of figuring out his role and position, which is not something that often happens to a senior.
Strickland showed some fire, but it was almost always at the wrong times. He never learned to control himself, finishing his home career on a fitting note, with a technical foul on Senior Day. He often was quick with a joke.
Again, that seems great when you're winning, but sometimes it seemed too quick, especially when games were being lost and his behavior or play was questioned. Strickland always said he knew what he should do, but he never seemed to get around to doing it.
WILLIAMS: WONDERFUL, DISAPPOINTING
Williams has been a strange case as well. On one hand, few players have come as far as he has. He arrived out of shape and foul-prone, and he will leave 50 pounds lighter and a much more complete player. He'll dot all kinds of categories in the Wake record book.
But still, something always seemed to be missing. Williams never developed that killer offensive move. He never quite rebounded as Prosser thought he should. His great ability to listen and learn seemed to turn to weakness when he was on the court. Somehow his unique approach was summed up in a quote before his final home game.
"This year has been great, even with the losses and the bad year," Williams said. "Coming back and hanging out with the guys I came in with, it's been fun."
There's that word again. Not that fun is bad to have, but when you're finishing the worst ACC season in 20 years for the program, quotes about "hanging out with the guys" just don't ring quite right.
When his fire was stoked, Williams put on some of his best showings. Witness his game against Eric Hicks of Cincinnati last year, or those against Shelden Williams of Duke and Tyler Hansbrough of UNC this year. Against Duke and UNC this season, Eric Williams averaged 17.3 points and 9.7 rebounds. Shelden Williams and Hansbrough combined to average 14.3 points and 5.7 rebounds against the Demon Deacons.
But Williams seemed incapable of stoking himself up without outside provocation. Too often, he'd float in and out of Wake's attack. If you watch Shelden Williams and Hansbrough, there's a certain consistent relentlessness -- to get position for a pass, to get to the boards, to provide help on defense -- that Williams simply failed to develop.
To be fair, those two also have teammates who fire rocket passes to them as soon as they're open. Watch Duke and UNC for a while, and you'll be amazed at the difference in entry-pass skills compared to that same area with Williams' teammates at Wake.
Prosser himself was torn by the criticism of Williams, even though some of it had come from Prosser himself throughout Williams' career.
"You've got to be really proud of him," Prosser said after the final home game. "He's a kid who came in at 330 pounds. He's really worked. He doesn't get a lot easy. Sometimes it seems like he's King Kong on the Empire State Building swatting away the biplanes, there's so much traffic in there.
"He's a great kid. Everybody spends a lot of time talking about what he is not. He's not mean enough, he's not this, he's not tough enough or whatever. But you know, I feel more comfortable talking about what he is. And he's a great kid. He's well-raised, he's deferential, he's a great kid. No one's more empathetic and cares more about their teammates than Eric.
"He has had it hard this year, because we don't have a lot of other scoring options. Last year, when you have a (Taron) Downey or a (Vytas) Danelius shooting threes, or of course Chris (Paul) handing him layups, Lev(y) helping him out on the boards. ... He had a lot of other players taking pressure off him. He doesn't have that. They're sending the hordes at him, waves and waves of players."
So when you recruit a player, despite all of the time you put in, you never really know what you're going to get. With this class, Prosser got a group of kids who had big roles on great teams, but who couldn't carry a team on their own. He also got a group that loved their time together and at the school, and that also counts for something in the end.