Deacons, Heels working together -- for now

Updated: July 29, 2004, 11:59 AM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- We could start calling this the summer of love for Wake Forest and North Carolina because of the relationships being formed between the two teams.

All of this brotherhood and bonding is sure to end sometime in late August.

Justin Gray
Justin Gray was Wake Forest's leading scorer last season, averaging 17 points a game.
Wake Forest is ESPN.com's pick for No. 1 in our Summer Sizzling Top 50. North Carolina is No. 2. That could be the way they're picked to start the ACC. And the rivalry will be even more intense, although the teams only play once -- in Winston-Salem on Jan. 15 (ABC at 1:30 p.m. ET) -- in the expanded 11-team ACC in 2005.

Until the season starts, however, the good vibes flowing between the two rival ACC programs will continue to thrive.

In an era when underclassmen bolt and elite teams have a hard time keeping their core together, the Demon Deacons and Tar Heels look more like an exception than the rule. Team USA had a chance to keep three Wake Forest players, sophomore Chris Paul and juniors Justin Gray and Eric Williams, and two Carolina players, juniors Sean May and Rashad McCants. But McCants was surprisingly cut Wednesday, and Williams was hospitalized for dehydration and won't be able to play for Team USA. Nonetheless, having two Wake players and one from Carolina still fosters good feelings between the two programs.

The three Demon Deacons arrived for the trials last weekend as the best of friends, fresh off a family cruise. The two Tar Heels are as close as ever, back from the Nike Camp for the second straight season. They had planned on spending their entire summer together before McCants got cut.

"We're really like brothers," said Paul, one of the top point guards in the country. "I talk to these guys more than my own brother."

Paul isn't kidding. Check out his summer schedule. He was in summer school from May 26 to July 1 with Williams, Gray and everyone else on the team. Then on July 2, Paul, with his parents and brother, joined Gray and his mother and stepfather, and Williams and his mother, for a four-day cruise to Nassau, Bahamas.

Paul and Gray then flew from Charlotte to Indianapolis to work the Nike Camp as counselors with May and McCants and a number of top returning college players. When that was done, Paul split from the group for two days to work the five-star camp in Pittsburgh. Williams was in New York working with a personal trainer. Gray went home to Charlotte for a few days.

Then the three reconvened last Thursday in New Jersey, with McCants and May again, to try out for the World Championship for Young Men's Qualifying team.

The tournament in Halifax, Nova Scotia, ends Aug. 1. All but Williams are going to California to work the Jordan Camp until Aug. 11. Unless he is still too ill, Williams is heading to Las Vegas to attend the Pete Newell Big Man Camp the same week.

"It would be tougher if there was a Duke guy," Gray said of getting along with an ACC rival for the summer. Gray said his animosity toward Duke stems from suffering a jaw injury two years ago against the Blue Devils. "So, I've got a chip on my shoulder."

Duke's J.J. Redick was supposed to be at the trials but withdrew due to injuries.

"But once you put on the USA jersey, it's not about the school; it's about the gold medal," Paul said.

All five players raved last weekend about the extended workouts they had playing under Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson and his staff of Tom Crean (Marquette) and Dan Monson (Minnesota) are putting the team through two practices a day. The practices are rugged, defensive and rebounding-oriented that are in line with Sampson's Sooner preparation.

"This is the toughest thing that we've had to do outside of preseason conditioning," May said. "Instead of being out of shape and sitting around, this is helping us get into shape. A lot of teams should let their players do this if they have the opportunity."

May and Williams spent most of last weekend banging against each other as the two primary big men in the trials. Gray was guarding Paul at times, something he's used to in practice. McCants has been running the wing next to Paul plenty, too.

This is the toughest thing that we've had to do outside of preseason conditioning. Instead of being out of shape and sitting around, this is helping us get into shape. A lot of teams should let their players do this if they have the opportunity.
North Carolina's Sean May

"He's the best point guard I've played with by far, by far," McCants said.

Better than North Carolina's Raymond Felton?

"He's a better point guard," McCants said. "Raymond is more talented. But taking nothing away from Ray, Chris Paul is really talented, too."

McCants and May might not be as close as the three Demon Deacons, who hang out at Paul's house whenever everyone is in town. But their relationship is strengthening daily. They first roomed together at the 2003 Nike Camp. May said it was important to him since he missed so much of his freshman season with an injury. Getting to know McCants even better helped them last season.

It was only natural that they would mirror each other's schedule this summer.

"We wanted Ray to come with us too, but he wanted to stay at home and work on his game," May said.

For May, it appears hanging out with the cut McCants is paying off. May looks about as trim as he has in two years. He said he weighed in at 263 pounds (close to what he was during the season) at the Nike Camp.

"But the weight is distributed differently and it allows me to play better," May said. "After four practices here, I was OK. A year ago, I probably would have been cut for not playing well and holding my own."

May spent the late spring with North Carolina's track and weight coach, running outside in the heat to drop weight. McCants said May looks good after spending time on his body in the spring.

The two are hungry to get to the Final Four after losing to Texas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Denver last season. Wake Forest is gunning for a national title, too, still bitter about losing to Saint Joseph's in the Sweet 16.

Both programs are built for a title run, with the Demon Deacons boasting the aforementioned three musketeers as well as Taron Downey, Vytas Danelius, Kyle Visser, Trent Strickland, Jamaal Levy, and a newcomer in guard Cameron Stanley that Paul said will have an impact. Skip Prosser's staff only has one change as assistant Chris Mack is leaving to join Sean Miller's staff at Xavier.

North Carolina brings back the three cornerstone juniors in May, McCants and Felton as well as seniors Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott, juniors David Noel and Byron Sanders and a stud of a newcomer in freshman Marvin Williams. May said Marvin Williams is a big-time player who will have an immediate impact. And, of course, Roy Williams is still in charge instead of leaving for the Lakers.

All of this adds up to one heck of a race for the ACC title as these two teams try to push back Georgia Tech, Duke, Maryland and N.C. State. And even the second-, third-, or fourth-place team in the ACC next season should be taken as seriously as a potential Final Four team.

"This is my third year, and I can't leave North Carolina without a championship," McCants said.

Wake Forest will have something to say about that. But for now the two squads couldn't be in more agreement. They want to win for the USA and along the way help each other get better -- so the competition in the ACC is at an even higher level.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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