January 19, 2004 WINSTON-SALEM Wake Forest emerged from its most difficult road stretch of the season with its first two losses and a lot of question marks remaining. The good news is that while the ACC schedule isn't easy the Deacons' only other consecutive games that tough will be Cincinnati and Duke at home in mid-February. Some new year questions were relatively new, including Wake's struggles with defending the perimeter, despite its smaller lineup. Clemson's guards scored 41 of its 63 points, and Texas and Duke combined to hit 19 of 41 three-pointers (46 percent). Another problem is coach Skip Prosser's fight to find the right lineup. After going with three guards early in the season, he's now experimenting with bigger lineups, including more extensive use of 6-5 swingman Trent Strickland. Soon, he'll also have to figure out how a healthier Vytas Danelius fits into the lineup.
The lineup shuffling also may play into another problem: Taron Downey's struggles. Downey averaged 34.4 minutes through the first nine games, then fell off to 24.3 in the next four, as Strickland and other frontcourt players saw more time. Downey appeared to suffer along the way, as he missed 18 of his last 24 three-pointers through the Duke game. He combined for three assists and five turnovers against Clemson, Texas and Duke. Of course, Prosser's experiments and Downey's lack of minutes all stemmed from Wake's No. 1 problem: the lack of an inside game. The Deacons were out-rebounded by New Mexico, Texas and Duke in a five-game stretch. Prosser has been using Strickland more, and during that span, Strickland averaged 5.2 rebounds. Jamaal Levy (7.0) and Eric Williams (5.2) remained close to their averages. Meanwhile, the three guards Downey, Justin Gray and Chris Paul rebounded less. Through eight games, they combined for 10.1 boards per game, but that fell to 7.2 during those five games. More importantly, though, the Deacons can't find any rebounds off their bench. The inside reserves Danelius, Chris Ellis, Kyle Visser and Todd Hendley averaged 5.6 rebounds in those five games. Most of the negative attention in mid-January focused on the Deacons' biggest player, Williams. Much has been written about Williams this year. The Sports Journal, among others, has praised his improved physique, footwork and hoops knowledge, while warning against getting overly excited about his early season statistics against weak competition. Much like the dramatic difference in his stats last season, Williams fell off again this year as the competition got stronger. He found himself in his familiar foul trouble, fouling out against Texas and getting whistled four times against Duke. He went into those games averaging 26.7 minutes and 17.2 points a game. In those two, he averaged 20.5 minutes and 4.5 points, missing 11 of 15 shots. Williams also struggled with double-teams, not making a move or a pass soon enough, and he continued to dribble in traffic way too much. But Williams was not solely to blame for his decline. It's important to remember that, while a ball-handler often can make himself a star, it takes a team for a big man to be successful. For two seasons, the Deacons have struggled to pass the ball to Williams in the post. With the arrival of Paul, that area has improved, but Wake's offense still operates most often from the outside or off the dribble. Wake had 73 possessions against Texas, and it fed the post 13 times, with seven of those going to Williams. Three of those passes came in the first three minutes of the second half. (That's a common pattern, after Prosser reminds them at halftime to go to him.) But the big guy didn't receive another pass in the post after that. In the second half against Duke, the Deacons fed the post six times on 36 possessions, only twice to Williams. In addition, they don't seem to react well when he's double-teamed. They tend to dump it to him and stand around, as opposed to cutting or finding open spots for a return pass. So how should the Deacons view their big center? Putting his career in perspective, they should be quite happy. It's rare that a big man can come in and make an immediate impact, and Williams has been a solid starter from the moment he arrived. He's made major strides in less than two years on the court, and his play probably will continue to improve as Danelius gets healthier. In addition, the character Williams has displayed makes many Wake observers believe his improvement will continue. When Prosser yells something to him on the court, Williams doesn't just nod. He usually replies, Yes, sir. He hasn't publicly complained about the referees, despite being in foul trouble. When asked about it, he always turns the conversation to how he can do better. His reaction after the Texas and Duke losses was typically responsible and introspective. I'm going to take both these losses and just really think about how I'm playing and try to evaluate some of the things I'm doing wrong, Williams said. Like not getting down on myself when my shot's not falling. Not beating myself up whenever I do something wrong. Coach always says: You've just got to worry about the next play.' For some reason, I do a terrible job of doing that. I always beat myself up whenever I do something wrong. When stuff like this happens, it hurts me to see me play this way. Banners Create Some Controversy One of Prosser's goals has been to make Joel Coliseum look more like Wake Forest's home than the city arena that it is. As part of that campaign, two new banners will hang from the rafters this season, and both are causing a bit of controversy. The first is a banner that's already been hung. It says: ACC Regular Season Champions 2003. Other schools have hung similar banners, but some around the program and the league have noted that there is no such thing as an official regular-season champion. The ACC recognizes only its tournament winner as its champion. More importantly, if Wake was going to recognize its teams that finished first in the conference, it left three off the banner: 1960 (tie), 1962 and 1995 (tie). This outraged some long-time supporters of the program and also left some of the players on those teams wondering about the omissions. For now, the athletic department is saying that its original intention was to have a banner that listed all of the relevant years, with space left for more, but that various miscommunications led to this version instead. Wake officials haven't said whether or not anything will change for next season. The second banner will be the jersey of Josh Howard, the ACC player of the year last season. Last year, the Sports Journal wrote that the decision was controversial, but that Prosser probably would hang the jersey this season as a motivational tool for a big game. He'll do just that on Jan. 29 against Maryland, despite some strong dissenting opinions around the program. Howard's jersey will be the 10th retired by Wake, tying them for the most in the league with Duke. That's a little shocking for a program that's generally in the middle of the league as far as basketball tradition goes. Wake Forest has retired the jerseys of all six of its ACC players of the year, while Duke, UNC and N.C. State have retired only 12 of their 24. Conference programs have had 39 consensus All-Americans, and 27 have had their numbers retired. Of Wake's nine other retired jerseys, besides Howard, eight made All-ACC twice. The other was Muggsy Bogues, who left school as Wake's all-time leader in steals and assists. Howard made All-ACC only once, and his No. 2 rank in steals is his only appearance in Wake's top four in any major statistical category. Additionally, Howard's teams won only three games in the ACC Tournament and two in the NCAA Tournament, and he once publicly quit on coach Dave Odom during an NCAA game. His career averages of 13.9 points and 6.7 rebounds don't distinguish him much from former Wake players Chris King (15.2, 6.1), Sam Ivy (14.0, 6.2), Kenny Green (14.9, 6.6) or Darius Songaila (14.3, 6.3). Gil McGregor averaged a double-double (13.0, 10.6), and nobody's ever started a campaign to have his jersey retired. Did Howard have a solid career and one spectacular season? Yes. Does it hurt to retire his jersey? Probably not. But if the Deacons are going to continue to plan and hope for great things under Prosser, they might want to look carefully at their requirements for retiring jerseys, a lofty honor that inevitably illustrates the program's definition of greatness.