WINSTON-SALEM – Wake Forest's victory over Duke was a signature moment in its season.
Certainly, it was a night where both talent and fortune came together almost perfectly. But it also symbolized the growth of a team with one of the nation's youngest starting lineups.
Wake has started three sophomores and two freshmen 12 times this year, and it has 109 starts from underclassmen, the most in the ACC. Combine that with a coach who's in his first year, and it's led to some rough sledding.
But by mid-February, the Demon Deacons were showing signs of what they could become.
The Duke victory was preceded by a win almost as important: Wake's first ACC road triumph (at Florida State). The Deacons also expanded their lead down the stretch against the Blue Devils, an excellent second-half team, as opposed to folding as they had in several other games (including 11 days earlier at home against Georgia Tech) this season.
"We grew up tonight," sophomore forward L.D. Williams said. "Toward the middle of the season, we would have just gave the game away almost. We wouldn't have made free throws like we did down the stretch, we'd turn the ball over late in the game, made bad decisions, took bad shots.
"I feel like we grew up last game, when we went on the road, and today it just carried over."
So what did we learn about the Deacons from this stretch?
First, Dino Gaudio can coach.
Gaudio faced numerous questions about his abilities during a rushed transition after the death of his friend and mentor, Skip Prosser. He had a poor track record as a head coach, and many wondered whether he could stand up to the "big boys" of the ACC.
Gaudio certainly stood up to one of the best in beating Mike Krzyzewski.
But the reason Wake could beat Duke was that Gaudio has been a good coach all year. He emphasized defense from the start, and it's clear that his team has come around to his vision. He's stuck to his guns with his players, being willing to bench them for poor defense or lackadaisical play. That includes freshman forward James Johnson, his best player.
He designed a system that works for the Deacons, and he's shown the ability to be flexible with his lineups. He stuck with freshman Jeff Teague in a two-point guard lineup through Teague's bumpy stretches early.
Moreover, he's shown that he's an adept in-game coach, switching matchups and strategies effectively. Witness, for example, his ability to isolate Johnson on the block against Krzyzewski's defense late in the first half, and his mid-game change in how his team played Duke's ball screens.
Krzyzewski praised Gaudio's ability to mold a plan that maximized his team's strengths, like its quickness advantage and Johnson's ability to create matchup problems.
"Dino's done a great job with his team," Krzyzewski said. "They're a really good basketball team. They have a well-conceived system."
Second, we've learned that Teague is a very good player.
While Johnson has faded in and out during ACC play, Teague has been consistently excellent. His defense has remained solid all year, and his steals energize the Deacons' offense and emotions.
But his offense has exploded. After averaging 10.6 points in non-conference games, he's averaging 15.4 in ACC play. Gaudio is not afraid to give him freedom on offense, and Teague has shown no fear in late-game situations.
He's also shown leadership ability, taking the point down the stretch from the free throw-challenged Smith. He opened the Duke game with eight straight points for the Deacons.
"Jeff Teague is really a courageous young guy," Gaudio said. "He got us off to a terrific, terrific start and let us know we could play with these guys."
Want to know how valuable Teague is? He's averaging 14.2 points and 3.1 rebounds in Wake's wins and 10 points and 1.8 rebounds in its losses. In wins, he's shooting 44.3 percent from the field, including 46.2 percent from three-point range. In losses, he's shooting 36.8 percent and 21.7 percent from long range.
That leads into a third item, the fact that Wake actually can shoot from three-point range.
For most of the season, Wake had to fight through its inability to shoot from long range. For the first 20 games, the Deacons hit 29.6 percent from three-point range. In the next four games, they shot 48.6 percent. In addition, they were consistent, not shooting lower than 44.4 percent in any of those four games.
With Teague and Ish Smith's ability to penetrate and kick, the Deacons have plenty of opportunities to shoot open three-pointers. If they can continue to hit them down the stretch, they'll be a much scarier team.
Fourth, the Deacons actually have developed a bench. It's certainly not great, but it's better than it was earlier this season.
For much of the first part of the season, Gaudio was lucky to find five players who were on their game that particular night. In February, the Deacons starting getting better contributions nine deep, possibly helped by the injury to Williams.
As the offense came around, the streaky Harvey Hale felt less pressure to shoot. Hale is much better as a defender and a shooter who picks his spots.
Jamie Skeen and David Weaver have added to Wake's post presence. Though neither is setting the league on fire, they've played well enough to make Gaudio comfortable. That means he hasn't been forced as often into lineups with Johnson at center, as he was earlier in the season.
Skeen, who has disappeared often this season, had 10 points and nine rebounds against Duke and six points and seven rebounds against FSU. Weaver, who was benched early in the year for his lack of focus on defense, has provided athleticism in the post, blocking shots and running the floor. He's shooting 62 percent.
Clark has been the odd story, going from languishing on the bench to solid contributor almost overnight. Clark scored 33 points in the four-game stretch, as opposed to 24 in the first 20 games of the season. He's also demonstrated tenacity, which he didn't show early in the season.
In the end, the Duke victory may not be any better viewpoint on the rest of the season than the Georgia Tech loss was, for example. But if Wake can hold onto the core of what it did against the Blue Devils, the future bodes well.
GIVENS FINALLY ON BOARD
Usually, college football programs sweat out the decisions of some of their recruits on signing day. This year, for one Wake Forest signee, both sides did some sweating.
Wake's final recruit of the 2008 class was Chris Givens, a 6-2, 200-pound running back out of Wylie, Texas. Givens actually committed to Wake last October, but things got a bit dicey by signing day.
To understand that situation, you have to understand the history of the relationship.
In 2006, Givens tore his right ACL early in the season. He rehabbed, though, and was fast enough to win the district 100-meter title. But then he tore his left ACL this season.
Wake stayed with him. Grobe often has used injuries to his advantage in recruiting, sticking with players whose injuries forced them off the lists of many bigger schools.
"They're OK with my injury, because they've seen how I can come back from the other one," Givens told the Dallas Morning News.
Sure enough, Givens currently owns the fourth-fastest 100 meters in Texas.
But Wake wanted him to "grayshirt" (as they did with offensive lineman Chance Raines last year and defensive lineman Steven Chase this year), meaning he would take a semester off, enroll in the spring and be a part of the 2009 class.
It seemed to be a good plan for both parties. Givens would put extra time into rehabbing, and Wake would spread out its running back recruits: Josh Adams (junior in 2009), Brandon Pendergrass (sophomore) and Lovell Jackson (likely a redshirt freshman that year), then Givens as a true freshman.
But on signing day, Wake got a surprise when Ed Imeokapara, an expected signee, switched to Florida State.
Wake and Givens (who also had offers from Wisconsin, UNLV and Utah) were both unsure what to do, and it caused a delay on signing day. Grobe even started to talk about Givens in his signing day press conference, before assistant Ray McCartney reminded him that he couldn't under NCAA rules, because Givens hadn't yet signed. Grobe said they were evaluating what to do.
After each side explored various options, Givens and Wake eventually agreed that he'd be part of this year's class.