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Wide A-wake

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

It's hard to believe, given its impressive history, but the
Wake Forest basketball program has exactly one first-place ACC finish (a tie) and two conference championships in the last 40 years. With second-year coach Skip Prosser pushing all the right buttons and ACC player of the year favorite Josh Howard making all the right moves, however, the Demon Deacons appear capable of many more big things in March.
By Bob Sutton
Burlington (N.C.) Times-News
February 24, 2003 WINSTON-SALEM — To come so far, to lead for most of the second half against North Carolina, to be within four minutes of winning in the Smith Center, Wake Forest had no choice. It had to grind out the final crucial minutes and defeat the Tar Heels in early February.

It was that important. It was absolutely necessary.

“It's one of those games,” Wake Forest senior guard Steve Lepore said. “If you lose it, it seems like it could be the turning point of the season.”

The Demon Deacons won that game, as they did so many others that seemed so vital at the time. They keep on winning, and their season continues to be pointed in the right direction.

Such outcomes have driven Wake Forest to the top of the ACC standings. With five games remaining in the regular season, including three at home, the Demon Deacons controlled their fate.

Granted, they've been nationally ranked for weeks, but probably under-appreciated. That's why every step along their journey seems crucial, as yet another way to prove that they are no fluke. The 2002-03 Deacons don't want to be just another good team in the ACC. Already the surprise team, they have aims on being the best team.

Wake Forest has had good teams in the past, years in which Randolph Childress (1991-95) and Tim Duncan (1994-97) made it look and sound like a basketball factory. During Dave Odom's coaching era (1990-2001), the Demon Deacons became regulars in the postseason.

But the underlying truth is that the Demon Deacons have just one first-place finish in the ACC to their credit in the past 40 years, and they had to share that one with three other teams in 1995. They have only two conference championships in that same four-decade period, in the back-to-back Duncan years of 1995 and 1996.

That's why it's so vital to finish the deal, whether it be in the final weeks of this season or the final minutes of a game against UNC. So much has been invested, so much is at stake.

“I told our players we're going to be good,” second-year Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said. “If it kills you, you're going to be good.”

They've been believing in Winston-Salem for quite some time, at least within the team. Outsiders were much slower to jump on board.

Wake Forest basketball, despite some impressive history, is never an easy sell. The Demon Deacons were the second-to-last undefeated team in the country this year, but that did little to shoot them toward the top of the national rankings. They headed into late February without consecutive losses all season, something no other team in the conference could claim. Still, it wasn't until the 13th home game, and a visit from Duke, that Wake Forest played in front of its first sellout crowd at Lawrence Joel Coliseum.

With senior forward Josh Howard headlining this act, the Deacs are a determined bunch. Their coach, though quick with one-liners on a regular basis, follows the standard routine of publicly questioning whether his team is good enough and keeping the focus squarely on the next game.

Somewhere in all this, Prosser has instilled a strategy that yields results and a confidence that brings more confidence.

“We had to make big plays and we did,” sophomore forward Vytas Danelius said after one game, offering a tone that rang more business-as-usual than surprise.

Lepore, a fifth-year senior with a limited role, admires how the pieces keep falling into place. Though it's natural for the team to defer to Howard at crunch time, it's more than diagramming a play for the go-to player.

It's an attitude. Games that in the past few seasons often slipped away from the Demon Deacons were responsible for miserable slides into mediocrity. This time, Wake might be different.

“When it comes down to the last minutes,” Lepore said, “it's winning time for us.”

And then, supposedly, some fun. After recent home games, the players have visited the area in front of the student section. It's a way of saying thanks for the support. After what became a rather ordinary 15-point victory against N.C. State, an overexcited fan caused a scrape across Howard's forehead. Later, with a small protective bandage covering the wound, Howard laughed about the incident.

The scars of success are worth every bit of any inconvenience.

Prosser, On The Rebound

When Wake Forest lost four members of its starting lineup after last season, there was little reason, other than Howard's presence, to figure that the Demon Deacons would make a major impact in the ACC.

“People told us we weren't going to be very good, and we told our players those people don't know a whole lot,” Prosser said. “Now those people are saying we're pretty good, and we're telling our players they still don't know a whole lot.”

Coming into the season, Prosser had a solid recruiting class and a few sophomores who had developed some seasoning in their first-year roles with the team. The inheritance of Howard aside, this is his team. For all that Howard has done to become the favorite for ACC player of the year and a candidate for national player of the year, Prosser is in line for similar coaching honors.

What the coach has done is maximize the use of Howard and then make adjustments from there. Prosser's moves have been largely successful, though he'll never let you know that. When he switched his team out of a man-to-man defense and into a zone to turn the tide of one game, his analysis of the move went only so far.

“That,” Prosser said, “was a classic act of desperation.”

Or when sophomore guard Taron Downey, who has occasionally had the hot hand from the outside, connected on a key three-pointer, the sequence was downplayed.

“That was a prayer,” Prosser said. “Luckily, he's a good, church-going kid.”

One area Prosser seems more serious about is rebounding. Or, should we say, Rebounding. It's with this fundamental, non-flashy concept that Prosser put much of his energy during the preseason and the opening weeks of the season. As a result, the Deacons lead the nation in rebounding margin.

“Those rebounds,” Danelius said, “they're like gold nuggets.”

Prosser said that because of the team's tendency to go through shooting slumps, the rebounding increases in importance. Through their first 22 games, the Demon Deacons had been out-rebounded just once.

“It starts with the emphasis that Coach Prosser and his staff place on that area,” N.C. State coach Herb Sendek said. “I've heard him speak a number of times, and he's very clear on how important that is to their basketball program. The other factor is just some individuals who are tremendous rebounders. Guys who have a knack for that part of the game.”

Five different players have held the team's game-high rebounding total this season. The makeup for strong rebounders is in place, with long-armed players such as Jamaal Levy and Howard and a persistent post player such as Danelius.

And a coach who won't let the issue go away.

Howard The Magnificent

The Demon Deacons generally know what to do with all of those rebounds: Make sure they give the ball to Howard.

It's rather convenient to have him available for such big-play duties. He can score from the inside and outside, off the dribble and off rebounds. Above all, he's a comforting presence on a young team.

“I said before the season began I wouldn't trade (Howard) for anybody in the league, and right now I wouldn't trade him for anybody in the country,” Prosser said. “He's playing exceedingly well. I don't know where we would be without him.

“He gives our team courage. It's a bunch of freshmen and sophomores out there and Josh for the most part. The things he gives us in terms of intangibles has defined our team in many ways. He wills them to win. I think he gives our kids the courage that we are going to find a way to win. He possesses an iron will.”

There were points in his career when the 6-6 Howard, who plays for his hometown university, became flustered when the crowds roared against Wake Forest. Not anymore. He tends to thrive on it. Prosser said the Demon Deacons must have such contributions from Howard in order to be successful.

“I've been a leader I never thought I'd be,” Howard said.

After a late-season ankle injury got the best of him during his junior season, Howard coped with shin splints that cut his practice time last fall. Once the season started, he said he blocked out any lingering pain. Since the start of January, he has led the team in scoring in 12 of 14 games.

“This is a team that needs to have him step up,” Danelius said. “He is fearless.”

Howard, who leads the ACC in scoring, will never have the tag of being a one-dimensional player. His defense often receives rave reviews. With more than 200 career steals, he's third in Wake Forest history and in the top 25 in the ACC.

But so far, his senior season has been mostly identified with the times the Demon Deacons have needed a basket.

“He was making a pretty strong statement,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said, “about being the best player in the ACC.”

“That's what good players do,” N.C. State guard Clifford Crawford said. “They make plays. This is what he's going to do each and every night.”

“(Howard is) the best player in our league,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He's a beautiful player to watch on both ends of the court. Everyone talks about his offense, but he'll guard whoever is hot on the other team. He's a great college basketball player, and hopefully he'll get the recognition nationally he deserves.”

Wake Forest's freshmen and sophomores often make mention of playing for Howard and Lepore, the team's lone seniors. But Howard said he feels like the younger guys are propelling him to new heights as well.

“These young guys keep learning and want to do good,” he said. “Even when I have a down game or a down practice, they come and lift me up.”

What goes around, comes around.

Rookies Make Statement

Justin Gray is a Wake Forest freshman with quite a bit to say. During the first couple months of the season, he often said what was on his mind. He frequently mentioned that the Demon Deacons weren't getting their fair share of credit.

Then the guard from Charlotte was muffled, courtesy of a broken jaw suffered while running into a screen set by rock-solid Duke forward Dahntay Jones. Gray could neither talk nor back it up. He was out of games for about a month.

But Wake Forest's freshman class still had plenty to say. Center Eric Williams, affectionately know as “Big E” around the team, and classmates Chris Ellis and Trent Strickland carried on in Gray's absence.

Gray's mouth was wired shut, meaning a different level of peace and quiet for the Demon Deacons. It meant no regular conversation or traditional meals for Gray.

Gray, who's listed at 6-2 and 185 pounds, lost 17 pounds during the ordeal, though he said he gained a couple of those back before the wires came out. He drank protein supplements to try to maintain some of the weight. He said he stayed mentally active with the team during practices and games. He wanted to keep abreast about new plays the Demon Deacons might use. He said learning about opponents' schemes would be helpful as the Deacons played their second rotation of ACC games.

“I was making sure I didn't lose out on anything,” Gray said.

The day the wires were removed, Gray ate three plates of spaghetti, followed by fish and mashed potatoes. His workout that day consisted of shooting drills with assistant coach Dino Gaudio. Gray did so in his game uniform.

“I just wanted to get some sweat back in this jersey,” he said.

A week later, after being fitted for a faceshield, he was on the court in the rematch against Duke. In the double-overtime epic, Gray was out there longer than anyone had imagined, playing 29 minutes and scoring 18 points.

“If you want to single out one Wake player, single out Justin Gray,” Krzyzewski said. “He hasn't played in a month. Give credit to all of their players because they all played hard, but Gray is mature and poised out there, and it helped them immensely. Ö The points were hard to come by. That's when Gray's points were most important.”

So while Duke learned that it's easier to shut up Gray than it is to shut him down, other newcomers to the team have made their contributions.

Wake Forest's youth movement might be ahead of the heralded recent classes at Duke and North Carolina. When the second Duke-Wake Forest game ended, the Demon Deacons were playing freshmen and sophomores against Duke veterans Jones, Chris Duhon and Nick Horvath. And Wake Forest was winning.

Prosser's approach to what could be an unsettling situation dealing with such youth is to look ahead. “Don't worry about the last play, worry about the next play,” he claims to often instruct his team.

When Howard fouled out of the Duke game with almost five minutes remaining in regulation, the Demon Deacons normally would have been in trouble. Nearly 15 minutes of game time later, they were in just fine shape.

“Without Josh, we were kind of wondering,” said Strickland, who scored 10 of his 12 points in the second overtime. “I got it in my head that I was going to step up and get the job done.”

While Strickland took his turn, other freshmen have had chances as well. Ellis also comes off the bench, giving valuable minutes in the post.

Williams, a fixture in the starting lineup, has been hampered by ongoing foul problems during the ACC portion of the schedule, but he has vowed to keep playing his style. He said he knows no other way.

That's appropriate, because it's a freshman class that seems to know nothing other than winning.

Pieces Coming Together

No one is mistaking Levy as a power forward in the traditional image, but don't mistake his recent contributions for the Demon Deacons. The 6-9 sophomore has played a key role in the starting lineup for more than a month.

“Levy has no ego,” Prosser said. “He has no expression, so I have no idea what he's thinking.”

Prosser often pokes fun at Levy's 180-pound frame. But those long arms and quick instincts work nicely on defense and in rebounding. Levy became a regular in the starting lineup when Gray went out with a broken jaw.

“I did not start the season like I wanted to,” Levy said, “but I did not lose my confidence.”

Levy, who's from Panama, has taken advantage of the situation, collecting 10 or more rebounds four times. There has been offense, too, reaching double figures in scoring seven times in his first 11 games in the starting lineup. He can play any of three positions for the Deacons.

“This is a hard league. It's hard to play successfully,” Prosser said. “He had been pressed into a starting role. I think people get all wrapped up in what position you play. You're a basketball player.”

Prosser said Levy's slender build can make it difficult for him against some teams. But Levy turned out to be the right fit. That tends to be a recurring theme around the Demon Deacons.

While Gray missed eight games with a broken jaw, the Demon Deacons persevered. Taron Downey, a sophomore guard, picked up some of the scoring slack while handed more responsibility of handling the ball.

“I don't think it can be appreciated, the pressure on that kid (Downey),” Prosser said. “He's our only guard. He hates to come out of games, hates to come out in practice.”

At just the right time, Lepore, a senior guard coming off offseason knee surgery, was available for more playing time. He didn't exactly fit the criteria to serve as point guard, but he was able to pull the Demon Deacons through some often-treacherous minutes on the perimeter.

Lepore's playing time grew as Prosser often left him on the court during critical late-game stretches, a test of his stamina. But the sudden increase in minutes began wearing on Lepore's knee. By the time Duke visited for that double-overtime game Feb. 13, Lepore was ailing so much that he couldn't play.

Fortunately for Wake Forest, that coincided with Gray's return.

That shouldn't have been shocking. The timing has been just right for the Demon Deacons all season.

Bob Sutton, the sports editor of the Burlington (N.C.) Times-News, has covered Wake Forest athletics since 1995.

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