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Without Prosser, Players Have Become Closer Than Ever

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




By Bill Hass
ACCSports.com

November 20, 2007

WINSTON-SALEM – Skip Prosser loved to make literary references and was especially fond of quoting "Billy" Shakespeare.

But another English writer – Prosser might have called him "Charlie" Dickens – probably penned the most accurate description of Wake Forest's 2007-08 basketball season:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …"

It's the worst of times because the Demon Deacons will continue to cope with the sudden, wrenching loss of their coach to a heart attack on July 26. They will face constant questions about how they're faring and how they remember him.

When they play or practice in Joel Coliseum, they will be reminded of Prosser by a banner in the rafters. Some of his favorite motivational sayings line the way from the locker room to the practice floor at the Miller Center on campus.

Prosser will never be far from their hearts and minds, and each player grieves in a different way.

Ish Smith: "I think I'm kind of in denial, because I don't think he's gone. Sometimes I go on the computer and look at his pictures and think about some of the things he would want from me."

David Weaver: "Sometimes when we're working out before practice, I see all the other coaches come in and it's like, ‘OK, practice hasn't really started yet,' because I'm looking for Coach Prosser to come through the door. I know he's here in spirit. I've got to adjust to that a little bit."

L.D. Williams: "You walk into the basketball office, and you expect Coach Prosser to be in his office. Or if you walk by the track, you expect him to be running a mile, or if you're in the gym, you just expect him to be there, and you find yourself looking up, and he's not even there. It's still a little bit depressing."

So how, then, can this season also be the best of times?

Team unity, for one thing. In coping with their grief, the players bonded as never before. Basketball will be their emotional release, and Prosser's memory will fuel their dedication to play harder and better as a celebration of his life. That leads to the possibility that this might be a better team than people think.

On paper, it's hard to argue with the predictions that put the Deacons 11th or 12th in the ACC. Defensively, they went from bad to worse the past two seasons. Offensively, they turned into a grind-it-out, half-court team with little flow. There's a gaping hole in the post.

This looked like a season of treading water, trying not to slip from last year's 5-11 ACC record while awaiting the arrival of a heralded recruiting class for 2008-09, when Wake's resurgence was to begin.

But it might start now.

"I know we're not going to be 12th," junior guard Harvey Hale said. "I think we're going to be really good."

Coach Dino Gaudio's top priority is better defense. He emphasizes it in practice, which Hale said has been physical and demanding. The goal is constant ball pressure by Smith and freshman Jeff Teague, trying for turnover and transition baskets. If that doesn't happen, there are two areas of concentration.

"We're trying to extend, we're not trying to get out in the passing lanes like we have in the past," Gaudio said. "We're trying to keep it a little tighter, guarding 17 feet and in. Most points per possession are threes and layups. So we want to do a good job guarding the three-point line, closing out with two hard hands, and we want to guard the bucket."

Offensively, Wake created the pace it wanted in its opening 85-60 win against Fairfield with 14 steals, five by Teague. He and Smith will alternate at the point but occasionally play at the same time, so opposing ball-handlers always will find a quick, pesky defender applying pressure.

Wake has one terrific defender in Williams, and Gaudio believes there is none better in the ACC. Williams also is emerging as the team leader, someone who won't back down from confrontation.

As for scoring, Hale can be one answer if he curbs his streakiness and becomes consistent. Williams is an athletic, powerful swingman who can drive, and he is improving his outside game. Freshman Gary Clark is a three-point sniper off the bench.

Freshman forward James Johnson could be the leading scorer. Something of a mystery because he played in the empty spaces of Wyoming, the 6-8 Johnson has shown impressive skills. He can score inside, shoot the three and hit the boards. In a closed scrimmage against UNC Greensboro, an exhibition against Mars Hill and the Fairfield game, he had double-doubles each time.

"James Johnson is as multi-dimensional a kid as you'll find," Gaudio said.

That still leaves the question of the middle. The candidates are 6-10 Weaver, 7-0 Chas McFarland and 6-8 Jamie Skeen. Weaver is the best rebounder, McFarland is still an unknown, and Skeen will get the most minutes because he also will play outside.

Gaudio believes someone will emerge. Over the course of the season, he doesn't want the kind of shot ratio the Deacons had against Fairfield – 31 twos, 29 threes.

"We need to develop more of a post presence," he said. "We absolutely have to. We talk a lot about our post guys demanding the ball. Some of the guys I coached in the past, if you didn't throw them the ball, man, they screamed at you. Our guys here, it's, ‘OK, we'll just run back down to the other end.' Post up, demand the ball. We'll get better at that."

Gaudio put in four years as a head coach at Army and three at Loyola-Maryland. As Prosser's right-hand man, he often drew up plays, including the one that worked to beat UNC Wilmington in the staff's first game at Wake.

If there's a concern about his record, it's the play of his teams within their leagues. His conference record at Army and Loyola was 33-73, a percentage of .311. Wake has gone 8-24 in the ACC the last two seasons.

Still, most Wake folks believe he was absolutely the right hire. He's cut from a different cloth than his dear friend, but the players have accepted that.

"I think I'm my own person," Gaudio said. "Skip and I have very different personalities, and these kids have seen that already. There's no question I'm a little more emotional, maybe a little more volatile. I'll be a little more a yeller in practice than Skip ever was. That's who I am, and that's who I'll be."

Wake weathered the emotion of the opener – a video tribute to Prosser, the unfurling of the banner, the hugging of his wife, mother, son and other family members. Then it went out and jumped on Fairfield 13-3, rolling from there.

There will be trying times ahead, especially within the ACC, as foreshadowed in more of Dickens' opening paragraph:

"… it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us …."

The Deacons must make their own choices.

WAKE FOREST

Track Record

Year ACC Overall Postseason
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
2006 3-13 (12) 17-17 NIT 1st Roun
2007 5-11 (10) 15-16 None

x – won ACC title

2007-08 Roster

Name Ht./Wt. Pos. Class
Harvey Hale* 6-2/190 WG Jr.
Cameron Stanley 6-6/205 WF Jr.
Chas McFarland 7-0/225 C So.
Jamie Skeen* 6-8/245 BF So.
Ishmael Smith* 6-0/165 PG So.
David Weaver 6-10/240 C So.
L.D. Williams* 6-4/205 WF So.
Gary Clark 6-4/185 WG Fr.
James Johnson 6-8/235 BF Fr.
Jeff Teague 6-2/175 PG Fr.

* – returning starter

Building Blocks

Ishmael Smith burst onto the scene – and past a lot of defenders – last year as a freshman. With experience, he became a better decision-maker and used his super speed more appropriately. He must get stronger and hone his shooting, but he gives Wake one of the league's better floor leaders. Harvey Hale improved after returning to shooting guard from playing out of position at the point as a freshman. He is a strong defender and a good mid-range shooter but must be more consistent from long range. Swingman L.D. Williams was the surprise of last season, starting every contest. He showed a great work ethic, a versatile game and an emotional personality.

Other Key Returnees

Jamie Skeen shot 38 percent from three-point range as a freshman but may be forced to play inside more. He's lost on the block, though, and not as intense as a top rebounder needs to be. David Weaver and Chas McFarland are the only Wake players taller than 6-8, but neither is good enough to start. Weaver improved last year after redshirting. He's athletic, can block shots and showed flashes of a jumper, but the coaches have not been happy with his defense. If the Deacons are going to be good, he'll have to become a factor inside. McFarland works hard but fouls often and may be another year away. Cameron Stanley is an outstanding pickup player, but he can't seem to translate that into games.

Some Introductions

James Johnson may be the team's top talent, and he's not shy. He'll team with Williams to give Wake two super-sized wing players who can defend, run and shoot the three, as well as being exciting dunkers. Johnson also will be asked to play power forward often in small lineups, and while he's a good rebounder he's not strong enough yet to muscle more mature foes. Jeff Teague will give Smith a chance to take a breather. He's also lightning-quick, and what he may lack in scoring he makes up for with excellent defense. Gary Clark will be asked to fill only one role – outside shooter – this season, but it could be an important one, especially if Hale struggles.

Also Worth Noting

Last year, many possessions seemed to ride solely on Smith's ability to manufacture shots. This team appears to have more players who can create with the dribble, more passers who can move the ball, and more who can hit open shots. … Wake struggled from the foul line last season, hitting 61.8 percent in ACC play. Smith, who shot 44.1 percent in league games, is the biggest concern since he has the ball in his hands so much. Williams shot 47.8 percent and Skeen 65.7 in conference play. … Wake was out-rebounded in ACC games last year, and gone are Kyle Visser's 6.4 per game. Without big men, Wake likely will struggle with rebounding all season and will have to compensate with its athleticism and fight. … Coach Dino Gaudio is preaching defense – and following through. Weaver was a logical choice to start at center, after 10.7 minutes per game last year. But he was second off the bench early, behind starter Skeen and McFarland. The message: Defensive lapses won't be tolerated.

Chart By: The Wake Insider