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Talent, Experience, Depth, Coach Evoke Final Four Visions

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

  By Bill Hass, Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record
November 15, 2004 WINSTON-SALEM — Skip Prosser, who has a saying for almost every situation, found one for Wake Forest's 2004-05 basketball season: "You can't swallow the elephant in one bite."

Translation: Despite enormous expectations placed upon the Demon Deacons, they can't win the NCAA championship in November. They must keep their focus and take it game by game to wade through the tough non-conference schedule, the ACC battles and the bright national spotlight that await them.

In three seasons, Prosser has elevated Wake basketball to the point that it will consistently be an NCAA playoff team and sometimes contend for the national title. And there may never be a better chance to win it all than this season.

Prosser loves experience, and this group is loaded with it. Three seniors and five juniors form the backbone of the team, supplemented by a pair of sophomores.

Most people believe second-year point guard Chris Paul will propel the Deacons to the heights, but Prosser would love for the catalysts to be the seniors — Taron Downey, Jamaal Levy and Vytas Danelius.

"There seems to be a seriousness of purpose with scholarship seniors," Prosser said. "There's a quiet determination in those three guys."

Last year's Wake team had no seniors, and two years ago there was only one. But that one was Josh Howard, who lifted the team physically and emotionally on his shoulders to a first-place finish in the ACC regular season. This year's seniors now understand the urgency he felt.

"When he went to practice, it was all about business, all about doing things correctly," Levy said. "It's the same feeling for me. When I go to practice, I worry about getting the job done and getting better every day, as a team and individually. You try to work as hard as you can and have as much fun as you can."

Downey said the trio will try to bring some of the same leadership abilities that Howard demonstrated.

"There will be a sense of urgency every game, because I know I can never get that game back," Downey said. "So I want to give it my all every time out."

Of the three, perhaps the biggest responsibility falls to Danelius. And it's not so much leadership that the Deacons need from him as it is performance. As a sophomore, he was the team's second-best (behind Howard) player, averaging 12.3 points and 7.5 rebounds. Last year, plagued by a variety of ailments and injuries, Danelius was almost an afterthought, losing half his scoring average (down to 5.9) and almost half his rebounding mark (down to 4.4).

"Vytas was very disappointed with how he played last year," Prosser said. "He doesn't want people to remember him by his junior year. He's light years ahead of where he was last year. His self-esteem is better, he's walking taller, he's like a different guy."

Danelius said when the team returned from its Sweet 16 loss to St. Joseph's last year, Prosser told him to close the book on his junior year and start from zero. Danelius stayed at Wake for both summer school sessions, worked in the weight room and on his conditioning and was ready for the start of practice in terrific shape.

"I was out of balance at the beginning of (last) season," Danelius said. "When I started the season, I was already behind the team. Right now I think I'm with the team."

With his post-up ability, Danelius can provide a big boost as a scoring threat inside and as a rebounder. He also can take a defender outside and hit a three-pointer, which can loosen things up for everyone else. While he may not completely recapture his sophomore form, a return to double-figures scoring and six or seven rebounds a game is essential if the Deacons are going to come close to expectations.

And what expectations they are. It started at the end of last season, when Sports Illustrated touted the Deacons as a Final Four team in 2005. The ACC media picked them first this fall, and the coaches' poll and AP poll each ranked them second nationally. Wake fans haven't been this revved up since the Tim Duncan era.

The schedule is laden with potential pitfalls, including road games at Illinois, Temple, New Mexico and Cincinnati, and a home game with Texas. The Preseason NIT contains possible stumbling blocks in Arizona, Michigan and Providence. Within the ACC, the Deacons play North Carolina and Maryland only once, but each in Joel Coliseum. Their one-game road opponents are Clemson and Virginia Tech, which plays in their favor. They meet the other six teams twice each, so that means visits to places where they haven't won in several years, Cameron Indoor Stadium and University Hall.

But there's an obstacle bigger than the schedule, even bigger than letting the preseason hype go to their heads: defense. Quite simply, if the Deacons don't get much better there, they won't come near the lofty expectations.

Prosser said the players are cognizant of the fact that they scored 80 points against St. Joseph's and went home. He believes that outcome sticks in their craws. So where does the improvement start?

"It's A to Z," Prosser said. "It's on the ball, on the perimeter, on the post. From a mental standpoint, it's got to bother us more when other teams score. When we started 11-0 last year, subconsciously we started thinking we could just out-score teams. Specifically, our communication has to get better. We don't talk near enough."

Levy, a marvelous individual defender who often has to make up for teammates being out of position, believes the team defense has improved tremendously.

"Last year we could score," Levy said, "but because we couldn't guard as well, we would give the other team a chance to win. Having that in mind, guys are taking defensive drills more seriously, taking more pride in defense. Now we have to take that pride to the court and be willing to give our best effort on defense."

Paul seems to be buying into that idea. Last year, his defense consisted of getting steals that led to transition baskets. He got a lot of those but also got beat straight-up when his man didn't lose the ball.

"I've got to understand that the defense starts with me," Paul said, "not just the offense."

Of course, he triggers a potent offense. Paul overcame an early reluctance to shoot last season to become a big scorer as well as passer. With a year of experience, plus some strength added in the weight room, he should be able to handle the big, physical guards opponents will send at him, as Georgia Tech did last season.

So highly regarded is Paul that he was chosen the preseason ACC player of the year over N.C. State senior Julius Hodge, the reigning holder of that title.

Paul has gotten so much attention that running mate Justin Gray, a first-team All-ACC selection last season, is almost overlooked. Any team that does that on the court will make a big mistake. Gray has a shooter's mentality unlike any other Deacon, and his selection and accuracy got better last year, especially from three-point range. He also can handle the ball and run the offense.

Downey, ever steady and unselfish, provides relief at both guard spots and seems the best-suited of the three to come off the bench. While his minutes per game declined by six last year, his scoring stayed the same and his shooting got much better.

Wake doesn't have a pure wing player other than Trent Strickland, an explosive but sometimes erratic performer. He had a stretch when he scored in double figures in five of six games last year, capped by a 22-point outburst against Texas. But in the season's final 19 games, he hit double figures just once. Prosser hopes Strickland can become a lock-down defender this season.

Up front, everything starts with center Eric Williams, who improved his scoring and rebounding but continued to be plagued with foul trouble, exiting seven times. He must cut down significantly there.

Prosser believes a pure post player such as Williams will pick up one foul each half and an additional foul on an official's mistake. That leaves the fourth to play with.

"We're trying to convince Eric that can't be an unintelligent foul," Prosser said. "We've got to get him to places a little bit earlier, anticipating rather than reacting."

That can be difficult, Williams said, because in high school he was used to going after every shot that came inside. As a college junior, however, he can't take that risk.

Levy is perhaps the ACC's most versatile player, able to defend everyone from a post player to an off guard. Offensively, he's a solid scorer and fine rebounder. He's also considered one of the most intelligent players in the conference. He plays a lot of power forward and sometimes in the post, but he's at his best as a small forward.

If Danelius truly does find his old form, Levy can stay at the three. And Levy shouldn't have to play much center, either. Sophomore Kyle Visser has looked so good that his 12 minutes a game as a freshman easily could go up to 20. He gives the Deacons size, a good shooting touch inside, and the ability to run the floor, although he needs to grab more rebounds.

Those eight players will receive the bulk of the playing time. When it's necessary to go to "deep depth," the Deacons will have to use 6-5 guard Richard Joyce, who did not play in the final 14 games last year, and 6-9 post player Chris Ellis.

Ellis, injured much of last year, is physical, can rebound and probably will be needed for five to 10 minutes a game, provided he can work his way back from a preseason suspension. He will be particularly important when Williams and Visser are in foul trouble.

Injuries could hurt the team's depth, already thinned when Todd Hendley and Jeremy Ingram decided to transfer and Prosser chose to redshirt 6-7 freshman Cameron Stanley, still recovering from ACL surgery last December.

But the ingredients are there for an outstanding season, provided the Deacons remember to take the elephant bite by bite.

Track Record

Year ACC Overall Postseason
1995 12-4 (1x) 26-6 NCAA Sweet 16
1996 12-4 (2x) 26-6 NCAA Elite Eight
1997 11-5 (2) 24-7 NCAA 2nd Round
1998 7-9 (4) 16-14 NIT 2nd Round
1999 7-9 (4) 17-14 NIT 2nd Round
2000 7-9 (5) 22-14 NIT Champion
2001 8-8 (5) 19-11 NCAA 1st Round
2002 9-7 (3) 21-13 NCAA 2nd Round
2003 13-3 (1) 25-6 NCAA 2nd Round
2004 9-7 (3) 21-10 NCAA Sweet 16

x – won ACC title

2004-05 Roster

Name Ht./Wt. Pos. Class
Vytas Danelius 6-9/237 BF Sr.
Taron Downey 6-2/190 WG Sr.
Jamaal Levy* 6-9/186 WF Sr.
Chris Ellis 6-9/261 BF Jr.
Justin Gray* 6-2/186 WG Jr.
Richard Joyce 6-5/218 WG Jr.
Trent Strickland 6-5/212 WF Jr.
Eric Williams* 6-9/291 C Jr.
Chris Paul* 6-0/175 PG So.
Kyle Visser 6-11/250 C So.
Cameron Stanley 6-7/204 WF Fr.

* – returning starter

Building Blocks

In his second season, Chris Paul must take full control. Last year, he swung between deferring and controlling, and Wake was better off when he acted as if the team was his. Justin Gray might be one of the most overlooked players in the country. Paul is getting the magazine covers, but Gray averaged almost 20 points a game in ACC play last season. Taron Downey can bomb away, as well as play the point. He didn't make waves when he lost his job to Paul, and he's a lot of the glue that holds this team together. Jamaal Levy is a remarkable role player, swinging between the forward positions. He's a lockdown defender and a relentless rebounder. If he can start taking the ball to the basket and/or making the open 15-footer, he will emerge from the shadows. Eric Williams is toned and looking athletic and mobile, but he must stay out of the foul trouble that's plagued his career. Few college players can handle him physically, although he still needs to develop a jump hook or another offensive move.

Other Key Returnees

Kyle Visser, last year's surprise, has looked great in the fall and will challenge for even more minutes. He has more moves and a better shooting touch than Williams, and he's added more than 25 pounds. Visser brings energy to the court, especially on the defensive end. Another energy guy is Trent Strickland, who sometimes has too much. He can't keep trading spectacular dunks or big blocks for wild, forced shots or getting beaten backdoor. If he can cut his mistakes, he'll see a lot of minutes. Vytas Danelius is another roller-coaster. On the verge of stardom in 2002-03, he flopped badly last year, battling injuries, struggling mentally and trying to figure out if he was an inside or outside player. Many have said he's in great shape and focused, but he didn't sparkle in the preseason. The Deacons need him to scrap inside more than they need his three-pointers.

Some Introductions

Cameron Stanley, the only freshman, almost definitely will redshirt this season. A left-handed small forward, he is coming off major knee surgery in December. Wake fans may need to get re-introduced to Chris Ellis. After playing almost 13 minutes a game as a freshman, Ellis broke his foot last year and never re-joined the rotation, playing sparingly in 16 games. He started this fall on an indefinite suspension, but if he returns he will give the Deacs an athletic big body up front.

ALSO Worth Noting

Look for Williams and Visser to play together more this season. Allowing Levy to move back to small forward should immediately improve the Deacons' defense, which was horrible last year. … After a spectacular opener in 2003-04, Downey hit 18 of 63 three-pointers (28.6 percent) in his next 15 games. He hit 29 of 61 (47.5) in his last 15. … Prosser hasn't won more than one game in a conference tournament since 1998, and last year was the first time he won two games in the NCAA Tournament.

CHART BY: THE WAKE INSIDER