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With Gray, Williams, Great Possibilities

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

February 10, 2003 WINSTON-SALEM — During Wake Forest's recent game against Marquette, ABC announcer Steve Jones said of the Deacons: “It seems like their favorite play is to miss the shot and then go after it.” He was right on the money. Wake's offensive struggles got the best of them again, this time in an important road test against the Golden Eagles. The Deacons continue to have trouble getting good shots in their offense or off turnovers. Through the first half of the ACC season (eight games), they ranked seventh in shooting percentage and last in turnovers created.

The Deacons have survived by getting easy shots from the free throw line and off offensive rebounds. In the same time frame, they led the league in both categories. But Marquette was big and agile enough to keep them from getting too much of an advantage on the backboards, and they couldn't find any other outlets.

Wake Forest has only one player (Josh Howard) who can create his own shot consistently, and it has only two players (Howard and Taron Downey) who are reliable three-point threats. Against Marquette, Wake coach Skip Prosser became desperate enough to insert freshman shooter Richard Joyce into the game with 6:45 remaining, though he knows Joyce isn't ready to play. He was just hoping for a three-pointer or two.

There's good news, too:

  • The Deacons managed to survive with Justin Gray out of the lineup, staying at the top of the ACC and in the top 25 nationally. One big key to their success is that their two strengths — rebounding and free throw shooting — are things that don't often go into slumps. Also, Prosser deserves credit for the most inventive coaching of his time at Wake Forest. After standing pat in most areas during his first season, he appeared inspired by the loss of Gray. He switched in and out of various defenses, used some press and tweaked the offense. He ran a number of sets, mainly against the zone, that used the elbow of the lane as a passing point, and sometimes it helped.
  • The coach also has rotated various personnel in different roles, and he's been unafraid to take chances, as he did when he removed his big men against N.C. State. Though they were providing a lot of offense, Prosser decided that Wake would be better defensively with a small lineup, and the Deacons pulled away.
  • Gray is on his way back. If he can regain his strength after being off solid foods for so long, he will make a shocking amount of difference. All of those things Wake doesn't always do very well — shoot the three-pointer, create shots? — Gray can do them. In addition, he'll take over some of the ball-handling and backcourt minutes. That will reduce the load on Downey, which should make him more effective.
  • Freshman center Eric Williams is showing flashes of what will make him a great player. First, N.C. State found out what happens when you don't double-team Williams. Against the Wolfpack's zone, Williams found room to operate, which has been rare for him in ACC action. He hit seven of 10 shots and had 16 points in 26 minutes. You can bet other ACC coaches won't make the same mistake. More importantly, Williams has shown his jump hook for the first time in his college career. It's a move that allows him to get a shot off without powering right into the defense, and it should make him much more of a force as it improves.

It's All Fun And Games Until...

Meanwhile, Wake Forest's party after beating N.C. State at home may have gone a little too far.

The atmosphere at Wake games has been much better this season, and the players began going over to the student section after wins and saluting them. It began as just some mutual applause and high-fiving. It looked like a lot of fun, and fun is not something that should be discouraged in a program that often has had a hard time generating it over the years.

But after beating the Wolfpack, the players, led by Williams, jumped on the press table, and the crowd ran to meet them. Joyce ended up taking a “stage dive” off the table and hand-surfing through the crowd.

In some ways, the celebration was a big positive for a school that has had trouble generating excitement at its home games. It also was a tribute to the spirit of the Deacons' young players, whom Prosser constantly praises for their effort and passion.

But the coaching staff and others were not happy about some aspects of the post-game scene. For one, the Deacons celebrated a regular-season victory over a 12-6 team as though they had won the ACC Tournament. Second, Joyce's actions clearly went too far, risking injury. The Deacs already have had more than enough freak injuries over the years.

Prosser is not Dave Odom, whose gentlemanly approach sometimes came across as dour and may have unnecessarily held down his players' emotions at times. At the same time, don't expect to see that kind of post-game party at Wake again, not any time soon.

Grobe Faces Important Decision

Head coaches get all of the attention, but those who understand college football know that a talented staff of assistants also serves as a vital component of success.

While rebuilding North Carolina, Mack Brown elevated the talent level, but he didn't win big until he found the right team of assistants. Rich Rodriguez helped make Tommy Bowden look like a genius at Tulane and Clemson, but Bowden is 14-12 with the Tigers since Rodriguez left to take the West Virginia job.

Jim Grobe suffered a huge hit recently when Troy Calhoun, Wake's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, took a defensive assistant job with the Denver Broncos. Like many of Grobe's coaching relationships, this was a long one. Grobe recruited Calhoun, a quarterback, to Air Force in the mid-1980s. The pair had been associated with one another ever since, except when Calhoun served his military stint.

While Grobe played down the loss, saying that all of the assistants had a role in creating the offense, the departure clearly will hurt.

Calhoun, 36, developed dominant offenses or quarterbacks in every season he was a full assistant except the first (1995). At Wake, he installed a no-huddle offense that made creative uses of wide receivers and blocking techniques. It vaulted the Deacons into an offensive force: They scored 27 or more points in 10 of their last 19 games, something they had done only six times in the two years before Calhoun arrived. Opposing coaches raved about the complex attack, at least when they weren't cursing it under their breath.

It is true that other assistants put together some of the offense. For instance, Jeff Mullen was responsible for most of the blocking schemes. However, Calhoun was the mastermind in crunch time, making all of the play calls under the gun in the fast-paced offense. That will not be an easy role in which to insert another coach.

Because of Grobe's loyalty to his assistants, most around the program believe he will promote from within, with Mullen and Kevin Sherman, both 34, being the leading candidates. Many are leaning toward Sherman, who has been involved with coaching receivers and the passing game since 1995 at VMI, Ohio and Wake. Sherman might even be able to improve the one area where Calhoun was a little questionable: creating a varied passing attack.

One interesting note, though, is that with Wake's national profile improved and perhaps a few more dollars on the table for assistants because of Grobe's recent contract negotiations, the Deacons may be able to attract more attractive outside candidates than in previous years.

Some questioned the timing of the announcement of Calhoun's departure — on signing day — and wondered if Wake might have held the news back from recruits until receiving their letters of intent. But it doesn't appear that Wake deceived anyone. The Denver position didn't come open until Jan. 20, and the job hunt appears to have taken until Feb. 4, the day before signing day.