WINSTON-SALEM — Wake Forest's basketball season ended quietly in a sleepy, half-full arena in the first game of the 2008 ACC Tournament.
It was a fitting atmosphere for the Demon Deacons, who sleep-walked through the final stretch of their season.
The last game, a 10-point loss to Florida State, was symbolic of that snoozing stroll: The Deacons' defense disappeared, they couldn't hit three-pointers, they didn't have everyone firing at the same time, and they played with little fire or emotion.
After beating Duke at home, Wake was 16-8, 6-5 in the ACC. The Deacons went 1-5 after that, beating only lowly N.C. State at home.
Only three Deacs came to play in the ACC Tournament loss: Jeff Teague, Ish Smith and David Weaver. James Johnson played well for a few stretches, which was typical of his spotty play in the second half of the season.
In the stretch leading up to the Duke game, Wake was getting contributions from many players. After that, coach Dino Gaudio seemed to get the best from only a few players per game.
L.D. Williams and Harvey Hale became non-factors. Williams had 11 double-figure scoring games in Wake's first 18. After his hand injury, he had one (scoring 10 in his first game back) in the final eight. On Feb. 6 against Georgia Tech, Hale went 7-of-15 from the field. From that game on, he missed 35 of 47 shots.
Hale's shooting woes contributed to Wake's awful three-point shooting as a team. The Deacons shot 31.6 percent for the season, and that fell to 28.2 percent after the Duke win. Take out the N.C. State win, and the Deacons shot 24.2 percent in those final five losses.
Early in the season, Wake made up for some of those issues by getting after it on defense. The Deacons exhibited great strides under Gaudio's defensive focus. But that defense left them down the stretch. Again, the FSU game was a great example, as the Seminoles went to the basket with ease in the first half.
So much of that defensive effort — and Wake's overall play — seemed based on emotion. The young team especially struggled on the road, where the crowd couldn't pump it up.
FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said he feared the "free" Wake team in the ACC Tournament. Gaudio was looking for it. He told the Deacons: "Let's be a young, tough, fearless team, and let's go out and play that way. Don't feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders."
Hamilton got his wish, not Gaudio. The tight, lifeless version of the Deacons showed up, as it did too often this season.
"I don't think we came out with the energy and emotion that we have in the past," Gaudio said. "I don't know. I don't know whether it was a big stage and we were …"
Gaudio's voice trailed off, perhaps fearful of what the rest of the sentence would mean about his team.
Before the game, he said he wrote on the board: Who will be the tougher team? Who will be the most aggressive team? To whom will it mean more?
The answer to those questions was clearly FSU. Gaudio admitted as much after the game.
"They were a little more aggressive, and maybe it meant to those kids that they didn't want to go out with a loss in the first round of the tournament," he said. "I just don't think we had that aggressiveness."
So what does that mean for next year? No coach wants to believe that another team could want a game more than his team does.
Next year's team will be older, but it will continue to rely mostly on younger players, including a strong freshman class. Hale and Cameron Stanley (perhaps, see below) will be the only seniors.
Gaudio cannot have a team that survives only when it can play on emotion and feeling free. He also can't rely on Johnson, although he's the best player, to be the team's leader if he's going to fade in and out, as he did down the stretch.
Wake Forest beat writer Dan Collins, from the Winston-Salem Journal, asked Gaudio about the lack of leadership.
"That's what we need," Gaudio said. "I really think that if we had that Josh Howard, or if we had that senior leader, it would have been different."
But it's not clear that Wake will have either of those next year, and Gaudio admitted that he wasn't sure where the leadership would come from. He did say that he had some ideas, and the best guess is Teague, the Deacons' best combination of talent and heart.
Still, with all the troubles down the stretch, a bit of perspective might have been lost about the season. With a number of tight losses, it became easy to concentrate on what could have been versus what the Demon Deacons did accomplish. With a questionable roster and Skip Prosser's death before the season, Wake was picked to finish next-to-last in the ACC. Only two optimistic writers picked them as high as seventh, which is where they ended up (tied).
Gaudio said Prosser's death could have devastated and splintered the team, but it didn't.
"If we never won a basketball game this year, the way these kids stuck together, the way they practiced, the way they cared, it would have been successful," Gaudio said.
As young as the Deacons are, the decision not to play in the new College Basketball Invitational was a bit odd.
Gaudio's postseason comments indicated that the Demon Deacons were ready to play more basketball, and that any time on the court would be valuable.
However, Wake athletic director Ron Wellman already had ruled out the CBI, even before the Deacons knew whether they would receive an NIT bid.
The CBI, in its first year, had some question marks, such as how much it would pay for travel and how much school would be missed, especially with its best-two-of-three championship round.
There also seemed to be some questions about how much the NCAA and ACC wanted to support the new tournament, whose success could pull teams from the NCAA-owned NIT in future seasons. Wellman always has minded his manners carefully in those situations.
In the end, Virginia played in the CBI, leaving the Deacons as the only ACC team with a .500 or better overall record not playing in the postseason.
RECRUITING SUGGESTS TRANSFER
The offseason will be interesting for Wake Forest basketball, as the transfer watch is on again.
The Demon Deacons are seeking a shooting guard to help shore up the team's glaring weakness. Wake would love to land Brad Tinsley, a top prospect who was allowed out of his letter to Pepperdine after a coaching change. They also are pursuing Chris Turner, who originally committed to Oregon State, which also lost its coach this season.
The problem is that the Deacons don't have an open scholarship. Everyone assumed that Cameron Stanley, a redshirt senior, would graduate. Then Gaudio didn't play Stanley, and the school didn't acknowledge him at the final home game, which is traditionally Senior Day.
That, along with some comments from Stanley, indicated that he likely will be back for a fifth season. If Stanley isn't leaving, that would seem to leave Gary Clark and Jamie Skeen at the top of the might-leave list.
Clark seemed a bit out of his league this year, but he plays a position where Wake needs help. Skeen appeared completely lost for much of the season. He's too slow to be a small forward, although he loves the three-pointer, and not tough or skilled enough to be a power forward. Plus, he plays a position where Wake is bringing in one of the nation's top recruits.