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Tradeoffs Follow Three-guard Lineup

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

  January 5, 2004 WINSTON-SALEM — As the Wake Forest basketball team headed into the bulk of its ACC schedule, coach Skip Prosser seemed determined to stick with his three-guard lineup. Injuries to junior forward Vytas Danelius forced Prosser into the move early, and Danelius' continued problems have kept it intact. Depending on Danelius' recovery — after missing so much time, “he's not going to be Karl Malone when he gets back,” Prosser said — the Deacons might be using the lineup for a while. Though it might not be by choice, it's what Wake is putting on the floor, and it's been enough to win so far. How will it fare when the competition gets tougher? The biggest concern is rebounding. Prosser rarely criticizes his team heavily in the press, but he took it to task publicly for not rebounding well after the North Carolina A&T and New Mexico victories. The Deacons didn't expect to be quite as strong on the boards without Josh Howard (8.3 rebounds a game), but with Danelius (7.5 last season) missing as well, it's been a challenge. Last season, after nine games, Wake was grabbing 47.5 percent of the rebounds available on their offensive boards and 71 percent of those on defense. This season, those numbers are down to 39.9 and 63.2. With a smaller lineup, one hope is that the defense is better, so easy transition baskets can help make up for the rebounding deficit. So far, the Deacons have been able to wreak some havoc on defense. Comparing statistics through nine games last season and this season, the Deacons have: (1) averaged 4.4 more steals a game and forced 5.3 more turnovers; (2) increased their shooting percentage from 47.7 to 48.6, although their three-point percentage has dropped from 36.4 to 36; (3) decreased turnovers by one a game and (4) prevented opponents from taking advantage of the smaller lineup for easy shots. Wake foes, who shot 38.7 percent from the field last season, were at 39.9 this season. Still, Prosser liked it better when he didn't have to rely so much on great shooting. He continues to work regularly on rebounding in practice, just in case the turnovers don't come against the better teams. “You don't have to be Archimedes,” Prosser said. “The formula there spells disaster if you're not rebounding, not getting out in transition and not shooting the ball well with a diminutive lineup.” After winless North Carolina A&T grabbed 20 offensive rebounds against Wake, A&T coach Jerry Eaves said he saw some holes. “I do believe that they'll have trouble if a team really can rebound the ball. That will give them trouble,” Eaves said. “If you have three-man who can guard one of the guards with good size, post them and rebound the ball, they're going to have a hard time because when they do have to take the (third guard) off the floor, their scoring is not the same. When they do play quality talent and people really do start to crash the boards and run against them, they're susceptible to that.” Without Danelius, Prosser has been searching for scoring from someone other than sophomore center Eric Williams or the trio of guards. Sophomore forward Trent Strickland and freshman center Kyle Visser have been able to provide it in spurts, but both remain inconsistent. Prosser has tried playing Visser and Williams together for some stretches. In fact, for the third overtime against UNC, foul trouble dictated a big lineup of 6-3 guard Taron Downey, 6-5 Strickland, 6-11 Visser, 6-9 Williams and 6-9 forward Jamaal Levy. That lineup was good enough to pull off the victory in Chapel Hill. Levy could be the key, if he can think and play more aggressively. He's shown a sweet mid-range jumper, he has the handle to get to the lane, and he can shoot over anyone his size. He just hasn't asserted himself on a consistent basis yet. When New Mexico was leaving Levy open, Prosser had to tell him at halftime to shoot the ball. The result was Wake's first two baskets of the second half, but then Levy took only one other shot the rest of the way. Williams: Smarter, Slimmer, Stronger Much has been made of Williams' improvement this season, and many have tied it to his weight loss. While Williams is indeed slimmer and stronger, which makes him quicker, his change in attitude and his knowledge of what to do with that quickness have been just as important. Assistant coach Dino Gaudio deserves much of the credit for those transformations. Gaudio helped drill into Williams that he needs to demand the ball and feel as if the offense runs through him. Williams admits that last year, as a freshman, he just sort of played, not focusing on anything in particular. This season, he's much more aggressive on offense. Gaudio still is trying to extend that attitude to rebounding, where Williams still sticks to his area most of the time. When Prosser referred to his big man's style as “test-tube rebounding,” it wasn't intended as a compliment. The biggest change, though, has been in Williams' footwork. It's one thing to get quicker, but it's another to understand how to play with your new skills. Gaudio's work has helped Williams stay out of foul trouble. By being in better position, he's cut way down on the reach-around fouls on defense, and he's virtually eliminated the shoulder-lowering offensive move, which was about all he used last season. The lack of fouls, along with Williams' improved fitness level, has meant more minutes. Through nine games, he was averaging 27.1 minutes, versus 20.1 last season. Nowhere did that show more than in the matchup at North Carolina with Sean May, the first top-notch center Williams faced this season. When the two players were on the floor together, Williams hit eight of 14 shots for 16 points and had seven rebounds. May hit six of 10 shots (plus a free throw) for 13 points and had 10 rebounds. More importantly, Williams was still going strong when May fouled out. Williams avoided fouls and was still running the floor at the end of his 40 minutes of play. Four times in the game, Williams made a baby hook, which is his first real offensive move. He's seemed reluctant to use it in the past but appears more comfortable lately. Another key is simply getting the ball from his teammates. This has been a real struggle for Wake in the past, and it remains that way for some, particularly sophomore guard Justin Gray. The Deacons have improved, though, helped largely by the addition of freshman point guard Chris Paul. Still, Wake must understand that good things happen when the sets start with Williams. When May fouled out with 3:41 left in the second overtime, the Deacons failed to recognize that Williams towered over the UNC players trying to guard him. Williams didn't touch the ball until Prosser called a timeout with 48 seconds left. After that, Paul turned the ball over trying to get it to him, then Williams hit the tying bucket on the next possession. Fans Responding To High Energy Prosser and his staff have put three years of work into energizing Wake Forest fans and the Winston-Salem community about Deacons basketball, and the head coach has put a lot of focus on changing everything about how Wake is perceived outside the program. Prosser is relying on Chris Mack (34 years old), an assistant coach, and Pat Kelsey (28), the director of basketball operations, to handle most of these changes, along with the Wake Forest marketing staff. Some differences have been obvious, such as the pregame “Welcome To The Jungle,” the Deacon mascot riding a motorcycle onto the court and the tie-dye shirts for fans. “I must also commend Wake Forest. This is a great atmosphere,” said Richmond coach Jerry Wainwright, a Wake assistant for eight years under Bob Staak and Dave Odom. “They've really picked it up. Back in my Bible Belt days, if somebody would have told me there'd be a Harley on this floor … boy, a lot of things have changed in this town. You see the Deacon on a Harley, man, that's something I never thought I'd see.” Long-time observers also notice numerous small changes, including many in Joel Coliseum. Everywhere one looks, something different is being done, and it's all designed to bring alumni and fans closer to Wake basketball. If recent attendance figures are any indication, the efforts are paying off. Wake drew an average of 12,148 fans for holiday games (no students) against North Carolina A&T and New Mexico. Last year, the Deacons drew 7,051 for two similar games. The year before, in Prosser's first season, the Deacons drew 11,865 for a game against No. 19 Marquette on Dec. 29 but just 7,498 for Richmond on Jan. 2. Attendance for these games is a key, because it means the Winston-Salem community — which traditionally consists of fans of other in-state schools — is embracing the Deacons' basketball experience. Wake already has sold out four future games. The Deacs sold out only one game (Duke) last season.