Wake willing to take non-conference risks
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Skip Prosser walked down the ramp leading onto the Pit floor where 18,000-plus fans waited to jeer Wake Forest. Just before emerging, he turned and said, "no one can say I'm afraid of playing anyone."
"Maybe they can say I'm not smart about it, but I'm not afraid."
You know, he's right.
The rest of his ACC brethren should take Prosser's cue and realize that the path to a stronger and tougher team is usually built on the road, not playing a soft schedule at home. Sure, neutral-site games against average competition is nice. But while Georgia Tech was willing to lose to Gonzaga in Las Vegas and Maryland lost to co-host GW in its BB&T Classic, nobody in the nation's toughest confernence is making life tougher on itself.
The latest venture for Wake Forest was here to the Pit, where New Mexico had won 22 of the last 24 games overall and 14 straight non-conference games. And, get this, the risk came with a reward. Wake Forest kept the Lobos at bay before a raucous crowd, winning 81-64 in a game that was chippy and down to three points with 13 minutes remaining.
Add it all up and Wake Forest is the only ACC team to play four true non-conference games (that's on an opponent's home court).
Duke plays one, at St. John's.
Maryland played its only one, at Wisconsin in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
Prosser said all he's doing is following the orders of NCAA Tournament selection chair Bob Bowlsby, the athletic director at Iowa.
"Bowlsby said that if you go on the road and play quality teams, you'll be rewarded, and I believe that to be true," Prosser said. "I'm not presuming or assuming that we're going to be in the NCAA Tournament, but this should lead credence to our resume. These players challenge our players to stick together. It was 30 of us, against 18,000 of them."
Actually, there were only about five Wake Forest fans visible, each sitting behind New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, which appeared to have limited their ability to cheer too wildly.
"Most teams right now are playing dogs," said Wake Forest junior guard Justin Gray, who tweaked his knee in this game, limped off the floor, only to return to nail a critical 3-pointer in the second half.
"We don't look at the other (ACC) teams, but it's in the back of our minds that they're playing smaller schools and not challenging themselves. Games like this will really help us down the stretch."
Prosser's choice of playing New Mexico was unique. Elite teams (Wake is No. 4 in the latest ESPN/USA Today poll) don't go on the road to a hostile environment, against a potential conference favorite without television or some other reason like recruiting or a home game for a player. The Demon Deacons did get Albuquerque guard Harvey Hale, but he won't be in Winston-Salem until next season when this series is over. No, Prosser said he chose the series with New Mexico to develop Wake Forest's national appeal and to challenge this year's squad yet again.
"I thought this team could respond to challenges, whereas other teams I might not feel that same way," Prosser said.
The Demon Deacons were savvy enough to know that this was a tough venue. They were welcomed to their locker room with a daunting sign:
"Warning Acute Altitude Sickness (A.A.S.)"
"Symptoms include shortness of breath, dizziness ... feels like the flu ... immediate medical attention might be required."
"The places we go in the ACC are just like this," Wake Forest sophomore guard Chris Paul said. "Here they try to influence you with the high altitude [5,000 feet]. They've got that sign right over here in the locker room. This is just like Maryland and Duke, maybe louder, but certainly just as loud.
"One time I was running up the court and told [teammate] Trent Strickland that I felt something pop in my ear. I was scared for a second. I'm glad coach scheduled this game."
The Demon Deacons missed free throws (10 of 26) but defended the Lobos as well as any team this season (5 of 27 on 3s for a team that was shooting 39.4 percent). When New Mexico's Sean Phaler tried to block out Paul at the free-throw line with 20.1 seconds left and fell on him, Paul walked away instead of getting in Phaler's face. There already had been a few chest-up face-offs throughout the game.
"Wake was like a veteran ACC team that never got rattled," New Mexico coach Ritchie McKay said.
That wasn't the case when the Demon Deacons went to Illinois. They were out of the game early and often, getting down as many as 32 points.
Following the game, Prosser met with Paul, Gray and senior Taron Downey.
"We should be in at least every game, but against Illinois that didn't happen," Prosser said. "We lost contact with Illinois in that game. I told those guys that they couldn't shoot their way out of trouble. They have to execute their way out of trouble."
Wake Forest did that Wednesday night. The Deacs will likely have to do the same on several nights in the ACC, and once more in their final non-conference road game at Cincinnati.
"This is going to give us an advantage," Wake Forest junior Eric Williams said. "We don't just play road games, we play road games against good teams. We lost one, but we've played in two very, very, very loud arenas... in Illinois and now this one."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.