February 24, 2003 WINSTON-SALEM In the case of Wake Forest basketball, absence not only made the heart grow fonder, it made the team get better. At the time they happened, injuries to Josh Howard's leg and Justin Gray's jaw certainly didn't seem like good things. But, while nobody with a heart ever would wish a collision with Duke forward Dahntay Jones on anyone, hearts certainly grew fonder as coaches, players and fans all began to appreciate what each event ultimately brought to the team.
College basketball is a five-month grind, not a quick sprint. In the long run, the absences of those two key players may have contributed to Wake Forest's amazing success this season.
In October, coach Skip Prosser was bemoaning the shin problems of Howard, along with the fact that the team's only other senior, guard Steve Lepore, was not fully recovered from knee surgery. Lepore wasn't practicing at all, and Howard could go only now and then. His situation looked bad enough that Prosser spoke of having to treat Howard with kid gloves all season. Even the possibility of redshirting the star player was run up the flag pole.
So what has happened is our freshmen have no models, Prosser said. And that's a scary proposition.
At the same time, some of the elements that make up the Deacons' currently wonderful chemistry were being formed.
Howard was realizing how fragile his NBA chances were, something that actually began when he got hurt near the end of the previous season. While he was thinking of turning pro early at one point, an ankle injury wiped out his momentum. He realized he had only one chance left, and he focused himself in a way he never had before.
While that dedication actually helped cause his shin splints, it continued to grow as injury woes threatened his future once again. In addition, Howard changed as a leader. Prosser had called him out on his weak leadership, and perhaps getting a chance to sit and watch was the best thing that could have happened.
No longer could Howard rely on leading by example, which was always his alibi when questioned. Now he had to talk to the younger players, help them, become more of an older brother instead of a teammate. Several months later, Howard jokes that the team seems like his kids.
And what about those freshmen, the guys with no models to follow? Well, they proved they were players who didn't need a lot of modeling.
Prosser was pleasantly surprised by the maturity and work habits shown by all, with the possible exception of swingman Richard Joyce. The freshmen grew together, because they were playing together on the court and because with Howard on the sidelines they were forced to feel the importance of getting ready to play as quickly as possible.
Gray stepped forward as more of an on-court leader, and swingman Trent Strickland from the small North Carolina town of East Flat Rock quickly gained the confidence that he could play at this level. Strickland was the star of the Black-Gold game, an event Howard and Lepore both missed.
Sophomores Grew Up Quickly
More Prosser, in October: I think the three sophomores have found themselves thrust into the position in the preseason of being the heart of the team. And that's something that shouldn't happen but has happened.
Again, perhaps it was a blessing in disguise. All three sophomores point guard Taron Downey, power forward Vytas Danelius and all-purpose man Jamaal Levy would rather play in the background than grab the spotlight. But the situation demanded increased maturity and self-confidence and, to Prosser's delight again, each rose to the challenge. They stepped from their freshman shells and became different players on the court.
Then it was Gray who went down, suffering a broken jaw in the ACC opener against Duke. Already, the team had begun to rely on Gray, another freshman. He was the second-best shot creator behind Howard and possibly the second-strongest leader already. Downey relied on Gray to share the ball-handling and the running of the team.
The list of things that changed in the month Gray was sidelined is a long one. Downey tried to step up to take full control of the team again. Prosser and his staff became more inventive coaches than they had been in their previous months at Wake. The team simply had to find other sources of scoring and confidence.
But the biggest change was the emergence of Levy. Because Levy was so inconsistent, Prosser had been hesitant to commit any extended playing time to him. Now, the coach had little choice. In the 11 games before Gray's injury, Levy averaged 4.6 points and 5.1 rebounds in 18.8 minutes a game. In the eight games Gray missed, Levy averaged 8.9 points and 7.1 rebounds in 34.5 minutes.
Now that Gray has returned, a confident Levy has fit right into the new chemistry, as teams are less able to focus on him. In the first three games after Gray came back, Levy averaged 9.7 points and nine rebounds even better than his numbers with Gray out.
The newly forged Downey is looking better as well. While Downey, a naturally quiet kid, battled to take control of the team with Gray out, his turnover numbers suffered badly. Before Gray's injury, Downey had 43 assists to 23 turnovers. In the 11 games Gray missed, Downey had 27 of each. In Gray's first three games back, Downey had 20 assists to seven turnovers.
Even small absences can make a difference. Against Duke on Feb. 13, Howard fouled out with 4:53 remaining. Moments later, Duke took a one-point lead, and it appeared Wake might be on its way to a 15th straight loss to the Blue Devils. But the Deacons won a thriller in double-overtime, relying on different players to take them home. First, it was freshman center Eric Williams down the stretch in regulation, then Danelius in the first overtime and Strickland in the second.
Strickland has become the Levy of last season. Prosser never knew exactly what to do with Levy, but whenever he would give Levy extended time in a game, he would produce. Those occasions were few and far between, though.
This season, Strickland is seeing the same kind of choppy playing time, mainly because he's playing behind Howard and Levy. For example, on Jan. 19, Strickland played six minutes against Georgia Tech and didn't score or grab a rebound. Then, for the next three games, he averaged 23.5 minutes a game, closing the stretch with 12 points and five rebounds against Clemson.
Strickland's reward? A total of 19 minutes in the next three games. Then he took over the second overtime of the Duke game, finishing with 12 points in 16 minutes overall. The reward this time? A total of 15 minutes in the next two games. So far, though, Strickland has kept a positive attitude, which is expected since he may be the team's hardest worker.
Concerns: Turnovers, Post Play
Despite the Deacons' streak to the top of the ACC, recent losses pointed to some chinks in their armor. The most glaring was what everyone expected coming into the season: a weak inside game against talented teams.
The bad news? Two good front lines, those at Marquette and Maryland, exposed this. The good news? As evidenced by the fact that it took this long to surface, there just aren't a lot of strong, athletic front lines in college basketball anymore. The Deacons won't see another one during the regular season.
Against Marquette, Wake's inside trio of Danelius, Williams and freshman Chris Ellis combined for 13 points and 15 rebounds. Marquette's Scott Merritt and Robert Jackson pounded them for 35 points and 20 rebounds. Against Maryland, Wake's trio combined for 18 points and six rebounds. Maryland's Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle combined for 28 points and 16 rebounds.
Wake also has had difficulty defending point guards lately, especially those who are creative with the dribble. In a seven-game stretch from Jan. 28-Feb. 20, opposing point guards averaged 17 points and had a 5-2 assist-turnover ratio.
Turnovers remain a problem for Wake Forest, as the Demon Deacons built an 8-3 ACC record despite having only three games with more assists than turnovers. During that time, the Deacs averaged three more turnovers a game than their opponents, the worst ratio in the league.