By Bill Haas
Greensboro (N.C) News & Record
November 22, 2005
WINSTON-SALEM -- The magazine covers have disappeared. So have the lofty national rankings and the buzz of a possible national championship.
There just aren't as many folks hovering around the Wake Forest program this year as there were in 2004-05. Chris Paul, the face of the Demon Deacons last season, is in the NBA. Three stellar seniors graduated, leaving more holes in the lineup.
In short, the Deacons are just another good team that might become a very good team and ultimately an excellent team. About the only certainty is that things will be a lot different this season.
"Without question, it was a bit of rarefied air from what I've been used to -- the number of people around, the attention, the spotlight," coach Skip Prosser said. "There will be less of that. Maybe that's a good thing. I don't think it was a bad thing. You strive to be highly rated, you strive to have people cognizant of the success of your program, so when that happens you're not going to say, This is really bad.'
"Will the glare be off us a bit? Yeah, probably, but that's OK. I'm not apologizing for the glare or blaming it. As a coach, that 3 to 6 every day in the gym is what you live for, you and those kids between the black lines. Who's around on the outside, ideally, doesn't affect that."
In truth, Prosser loves a situation such as this. It gives him and his staff the chance to do the kind of teaching they're good at. It's not that the Deacons are inexperienced. They still have seniors Justin Gray, Eric Williams, Trent Strickland and Chris Ellis and junior Kyle Visser.
But all except Williams are being asked to do something new -- either start full-time (Strickland, Visser), contribute more than ever (Ellis) or play a different position (Gray). Fold in new players such as Harvey Hale, Kevin Swinton, Shamaine Dukes, Cameron Stanley and Michael Drum, and there's a whole new look to this team.
It would be foolish to draw conclusions based on what the Deacons show in November. Or even December. And perhaps some of January. It may take them that long to get the hang of what they're doing. By February, everyone should know whether or not this team is a serious contender.
One thing in Wake's favor is the presence of the five upperclassmen. Those players should be a relatively quick study in their roles. It's mostly out of respect for Gray and Williams that Wake was picked to finish third in the ACC.
The Deacons easily could do that, and maybe even give second place a good run. They also could finish anywhere down to sixth or seventh.
"Every game we're going to have to work hard," Gray said. "No game will we come out and say, It's a cakewalk.'"
That was certainly true early, when the Deacons struggled to win an exhibition over Winston-Salem State, then did the same against Mississippi Valley State and George Mason. If nothing else, those games showed there's plenty to work on.
Defense, last year's soft spot, will be a worry again. The Deacons don't handle dribble penetration well, and they came unglued at George Mason's press. Small, quick lineups are likely to give them trouble.
They should get better as Gray adapts to his role at the point. He's too good to again commit a horrendous 10 turnovers (three on palming calls), as he did against George Mason. While Gray is not as fast from baseline to baseline as Paul, the Deacons still are going to push the ball quickly. Prosser likes to pressure the defense into making mistakes and converting them into cheap baskets.
"When we get the ball, the mindset is to go, to push the ball down the floor as rapidly as possible," Prosser said. "Then, if nothing develops, to have the mental wherewithal to say, Now we have to slow it down here a bit and let something develop.'It's not easy. There's no way to make it easy."
It's going to take Dukes a while to get used to that, which will limit his minutes early. Hale, a poised, smooth combo guard, might provide some help. But mostly the burden is going to fall on Gray's shoulders.
Even if he handles it well, what may not be answered about Gray for a while is whether he still can be a threat shooting. As Prosser often said during the preseason, Gray now has to be the one who starts plays rather than finishing them.
"He's got a good sense of the floor, he sees well, he passes the ball in traffic well," Prosser said. "Because he's a bright guy with a high basketball IQ, I'm confident he can do it."
Williams, who has learned to stay out of constant foul trouble, should have an excellent season, especially if he adds an outside dimension to his game. Visser gives Wake another big body up front, but the Deacons still are waiting for him to supply consistency.
Ellis will be a threat who can hit an open three-pointer. Freshman Kevin Swinton, who missed the two exhibitions and the first two games on a university suspension, will join the fray and give the Deacons a nucleus of good rebounders.
Strickland, who has shown flashes of great ability but rarely for long, said he wants to be the Josh Howard of this team. So he went out and recorded double-doubles in the first two games. If he can provide even half the rebounding and defense that Howard did for the long haul, Strickland will be an important cog.
Drum will supply heady, if unspectacular, play at the off guard, which isn't bad for a Division II transfer (Presbyterian) who is not, at the moment, on scholarship. Hale will find important minutes in the backcourt. How much the other freshmen will contribute is unclear. Stanley, coming off a medical redshirt (knee) season, has a long way to go. So does Dukes. If 6-10 David Weaver doesn't play by Christmas, he'll likely be redshirted.
Exactly what will come out of Prosser's oven with these ingredients won't be determined for a while. But there are too many good older players for Wake to go into a freefall.
In the larger scope of things, though, Wake could be nearing the end of a nice run. Prosser always has had star players as bridges between classes. In 2001-02, his first season, there was a large senior class headed by Darius Songaila. When they left, there were no juniors and only one senior in 2002-03, but that was Josh Howard, who became the ACC player of the year.
Howard left and in 2003-04 there were no seniors at all, but the Taron Downey-Jamaal Levy-Vytas Danelius class were juniors, and a precocious freshman named Chris Paul joined the mix. Last year's veteran roster had the parts for a national champion, although it fell short.
Stellar seniors Gray and Williams head this year's roster. But in 2006-07, after their class departs, the Deacons will be left with two seniors, Visser and Drum, and the rest sophomores and freshmen, with not a proven star among them.
However this season turns out, then, Wake fans should savor it. It may take time to get back to this level.
Year ACC Overall Postseason
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
2005 13-3 (2) 27-6 NCAA 2nd Round
x - won ACC title
Name Ht./Wt. Pos. Class
Chris Ellis 6-9/267 BF Sr.
Justin Gray* 6-2/194 PG Sr.
Trent Strickland 6-5/216 WG Sr.
Eric Williams* 6-9/280 C Sr.
Michael Drum 6-6/204 WF Jr.
Kyle Visser 6-11/244 C Jr.
Shamaine Dukes 6-1/175 PG Fr.
Harvey Hale 6-2/186 WG Fr.
Cameron Stanley 6-6/214 WF Fr.
Kevin Swinton 6-7/224 BF Fr.
David Weaver 6-10/224 C Fr.
* - returning starter
Eric Williams gives coach Skip Prosser one of the biggest building blocks in the nation. Williams' improvement has been impressive, but he's still limited. He doesn't block shots, rebound well out of his area, or have a variety of moves. But his footwork is much better, he's fouling less often, and few can match his strength in the post. Can Wake remember to get him the ball? Justin Gray has been one of the ACC's best wing guards, but his ability to play the point remains questionable. Can he run the show, be the team leader and score? Listing Trent Strickland here is risky, considering his inconsistency. He's been a high-flyer, but he's also prone to bad decisions, getting lost on defense and having a hot temper. Early this season, he showed signs of harnessing that and adding a consistent three-point shot.
OTHER KEY RETURNEES
Kyle Visser pulled a disappearing act last year, after a good freshman season. If he plays quality minutes alongside Williams, Wake can have one of the nation's biggest frontlines. More important, Visser has the athleticism Williams lacks, including the ability to block shots and hit jumpers. Chris Ellis has had an injury-marred career, but when he's playing well he provides an athletic big body. He can hit three-pointers, run the break and block shots, although he still tends to get lost on defense.
Michael Drum, a walk-on transfer from Division II Presbyterian, is supposed to be this sporadic team's glue. He can hit the open three, but is he quick enough to play defense or get a shot off against ACC players? Redshirt freshman Cameron Stanley returns from a knee injury, but it's been almost two years since he played competitively, and it shows. Harvey Hale is clearly the leader among the four true freshmen. He plays like a veteran, gets it done on defense and can handle the ball. Prosser may play him more at the point if Gray struggles. Kevin Swinton is the next-best rookie, but Wake can let him develop slowly because of its frontcourt depth. Unfortunately, the Deacons can't wait on Shamaine Dukes, as they need him to give Gray some rest. Dukes doesn't appear even close to ready, though. David Weaver, an athletic big man, is expected to redshirt.
ALSO WORTH NOTING
Prosser is averaging 23.5 wins at Wake. No team has more ACC wins over the last three years. Wake was No. 1 last year for the first time in history, and school spirit is hotter than ever. But the postseason has baffled him. He's won two ACC Tournament games in four years, and he has won more than one conference tournament game only twice in his 12 years of coaching. The only time he's won two NCAA games was 2004. ... Ellis shot 61.1 percent from three-point range last year, 54 percent from two-point range. ... For his career, in conference games, Gray has 85 assists and 95 turnovers. ... Williams, who shot 63 percent from the floor last year, needs to hit about 68 percent this season (that would be second-best in ACC history) to pass Jim Johnstone for No. 1 in Wake history. ... Last year, Visser averaged a block every 13.2 minutes. Williams had one every 26.4.
Chart By: The Wake Insider