November 30, 2004 WINSTON-SALEM When you return basically your entire roster, as the Wake Forest basketball team did this season, it's generally seen as a good thing.
But without any new blood to shake up the mix, what's to say that the team's negative traits won't return as well? Wake Forest lost 10 games last season, dropped its opener in the ACC Tournament and fell short of the final eight in the NCAA Tournament. Is experience enough to wipe away the problems and make Wake the No. 1 team in the country?
Let's take an early look at how the Deacons are faring with the questions the Sports Journal and others asked repeatedly last season and will ask again in 2004-05.
Defense: Wake allowed opponents to shoot 45 percent from the floor last season, and this year's Deacons held opponents to 39 percent through five games. Their performance has been sporadic, however. Yale shot 45 percent, but Wake held Arizona to 32 percent. Some of the latter can be attributed to the Wildcats' offensive wildness.
The Deacons still seem to fade in and out of good team defense during games, and Prosser remains frustrated. Though he's a man-to-man guy, he's already had the Deacons playing zone and triangle-and-two so far, two things he doesn't want to use very often.
Lineup: Part of the defensive problem relates to Prosser's lineup choices, another much-discussed issue from last season. Prosser has a lot of parts, but fitting them together correctly is not always easy.
Wake can go small or large, fast or slow. Last year, many questioned whether Prosser was pressing his advantage (playing a bigger lineup against smaller teams) too little and reacting to his opponents (going to a smaller lineup) too much. Those decisions often play directly into how well Wake defends or rebounds. If Prosser plays center Eric Williams and power forward Vytas Danelius together, Wake is slower, but tougher inside. Playing Jamaal Levy at power forward makes Wake faster but brings in a smaller player at small forward.
So far, it's not clear that Prosser has settled on a plan for this season, either, other than to experiment and adjust along the way.
Danelius: Part of the lineup problem is figuring out Danelius. While his offseason workouts were much-hyped, he hasn't shown too much on the court yet. After a very solid opener, he averaged 3.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 31 percent shooting over four games.
Danelius doesn't really have to score because he can do other (little) things, but he must do them well, including high-low passes to the post, defending interior forwards and returning to the 7.5 rebounds a game of his sophomore season. With the fast pace Wake is playing, though, Prosser may start to look for Danelius only when the opponent has a slow, strong forward. The coach can't afford more than one slow player on the court at a time.
Williams: Last year, many wondered how Williams fit in, as Wake picked up the pace. Often, he didn't. Despite his physical advantages in most games, Wake would go long stretches without throwing the ball to him on the block. Then, when they did, Williams hadn't developed many reliable moves.
Williams is clearly different this year. He's much leaner and quicker, which helps him avoid fouls and fit with the running offense. He's also able to rebound in a wider area, giving him more of a chance for put-backs.
What hasn't changed much is Wake's inability to get him the ball and his lack of polished moves. The Deacons still struggle to give Williams entry passes in the halfcourt offense. When he does get it, he still brings the ball down and tries to power through people. That works against small opponents early but drags him down against quality competition. A reliable jump hook would work wonders for Williams' game.
Zone offense and another offensive option: In Prosser's era, Wake always has struggled against zones. The Deacons often become passive, sapping their energy. Often, when that happens, it translates to the defensive end as well.
Luckily, most coaches seem reluctant to play zones, despite what they must see on film. But little seems to have changed for Wake this year, so look for teams that make Wake play a slow and disciplined game to have a chance to pull the upset. Teams such as Arizona play right into Wake's hands by going full-speed ahead.
Part of the Deacons' problem is finding another source of offense. Under Prosser, Wake has seemed limited to three-pointers from guards, guards creating and the occasional post shot. Against a zone, penetration often is limited, and Wake struggles to get the ball inside. That sometimes leaves only the three-pointer or the offensive rebound.
The Deacons will need to get scoring in the offense from Levy, wing forward Trent Strickland or someone else. Neither Levy nor Strickland appears both significantly improved (Strickland) and more aggressive with the ball (Levy) in relation to last season.
Free throws: These were a minor concern in 2003-04 but have grown larger this season. Last year, the top three guards Justin Gray, Taron Downey and Chris Paul shot 83 percent from the line, while the rest of the team shot 62 percent. This year, Paul is shooting 86 percent, but the rest of the team was at 59 percent through five games, including 11 of 21 for Gray.
Self-motivation: Last year's Deacons seemed to need a punch in the face just to get fired up. The players are a nice, friendly bunch, which doesn't always translate into on-court intensity.
When Wake played at the level of some of its early opponents and started slowly against Arizona, it looked like more of the same. Williams actually said the team had to remind itself at halftime that Arizona was good and that Wake was going to have to fight.
Paul: The big question for Paul is how much control to take of the team. Last year, he was too deferential, especially early in the season. This year, he's been a little too aggressive at times. The best guess is that this will not be a problem at all, and that Paul will help take care of the motivation part as well.
Biggest Differences: Pace, Ellis
So if so much seems the same, what's different? After all, Wake did roll to the Preseason NIT championship.
Pace: Last season, Wake struggled to decide whether it was going to try to run or slow down and start the offense with Williams. Often, it ended up somewhere in the middle.
This year, Wake has put the pedal down and pretty much kept it there. With Williams able to keep up, the Deacons have been relentless in continuing to attack and attack. With that approach comes more turnovers and some bad shots, but Prosser obviously is willing to surrender those if Wake can keep taking the ball right to its opponents.
Another key to pace is depth, which the Deacons clearly have in sufficient quantity. Prosser can go nine deep this season without thinking twice about negative repercussions.
Chris Ellis: The main reason the depth is slightly better is the full return of Ellis. After getting hurt and contributing very little last season, Ellis missed the first two games of 2004-05 because of a suspension. Since his return, though, he's opened eyes.
Ellis always has been quick for a big man, but he's showing more strength and more offensive moves. After the Yale game, in which Ellis had 14 points and five rebounds in 18 minutes, Williams said that Ellis brings energy, the team's second-best hops (behind Strickland) and enough strength that Williams can't handle him in practice.
The problem with Ellis always has been confidence. He's often lacked aggressiveness, preferring to exist in the shadows. If Prosser can build his confidence, he'll have a power forward who fits more into his running game.