Wake awaits plenty of ACC challenges

Originally Published: December 30, 2003
By Michael Vega | Special to ESPN.com

Wake Forest used the past 10 days to exhale. The Demon Deacons had to recuperate emotionally and physically from a breathtaking 119-114 triple-overtime victory at North Carolina.

But, how do the Deacs intend to top an ACC opener for the ages?

"We just have to move on to the next one," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said.

Yeah, right.

The 7-0 Deacs, ranked fifth in this week's ESPN/USA Today coaches poll (No. 6 in AP), resume their season Tuesday by tipping off a four-game homestand against winless (0-7) North Carolina A&T. But the memories of Wake's amazing triumph in Chapel Hill on Dec. 20 -- an Instant Classic had it been shown on a certain network, no doubt -- remain vivid.

"I said before the game (at Carolina) that it was going to be 1/16th of our conference season and that remains true," Prosser said. "But it was an unbelievable game to be a part of. I thought our kids battled and made huge play after huge play. So did Carolina, but our guys were undaunted, so I don't know if it was a revelation or not.

"They played extremely hard. I didn't know if that'd be good enough to win the game, but I really like our team."

What's not to like?

Jamaal Levy
Jamaal Levy and Wake have had 10 days to soak in their triple-overtime victory at UNC.

The Deacs lead the nation in scoring (92.3 ppg) and have demonstrated they are prepared to take their first formative steps in the post-Josh Howard Era, fielding a roster with nary a single scholarship senior, yet capable of balanced scoring among five players. What did seem to be a revelation, though, were the gritty performances Prosser got from several of his players in Wake's first seven wins of the season.

First and foremost, there was the courage displayed by junior guard Taron Downey. Eight days after undergoing an emergency appendectomy, Downey returned to play a prominent role in Wake's 85-76 season-opening victory over Memphis in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden.

"One week after going into the hospital for an appendicitis," Prosser said, "One of the first words he said to the surgeon after coming out of it was, 'I'll be able to play Thursday, won't I?' There's no way we expected him to play a single minute and yet he played 29, and played exceedingly well."

After Justin Gray got into foul trouble against Memphis, Downey entered the game to score a career-high 20 points, hitting 4 of 7 shots from behind the 3-point arc. He added five assists as well as five rebounds. It was a courageous performance worthy of MVP honors of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.

"That's the stuff legends are made of," Prosser said. "I think that really set an example for the rest of our team."

While 6-foot-9, 275-pound sophomore center Eric Williams and 6-foot freshman guard Chris Paul have already won ACC player and rookie of the week honors, respectively, for their efforts against the Tar Heels, the Deacs were truly bolstered by the play off the bench. Trent Strickland, a 6-5 sophomore guard scored a career-high 15 points against the Heels, while 6-11 freshman center Kyle Visser also had a career-high 13 points and eight rebounds in 20 minutes.

Visser, though, proved to be the biggest surprise in Wake's victory over UNC. To say he had played sparingly in Wake's first six games would be a gross understatement. Visser sat out the previous game at Southern Methodist. He did not score a point or grab a rebound the game before that against Richmond (Dec. 6). And a few days earlier, Visser sat out Wake's ACC/Big Ten Challenge rout of Indiana, nursing an ankle injury.

"On the plane ride back from Dallas after the SMU game," Prosser said. "I could sense that he was down a little bit. I sat him down and told him he was a good player and that he'd eventually get his chance."

The opportunity finally presented itself when junior forward Vytas Danelius was sidelined for the UNC game by a sprained right ankle. Visser responded with a breakthrough performance, grabbing more rebounds in one game than he had in the six previous games combined (6).

After having four key members of its team go down with injury or illness in the first seven games, the Deacs hope to be bolstered by the return of Danelius and sophomore forward Chris Ellis, who suffered a broken bone in his right foot during the preseason. Wake doesn't exactly pick up where it left off against UNC, and should extend its 20-game home winning streak against a couple of nonconference "breathers." After hosting A&T, New Mexico comes to Joel Coliseum on Saturday and Brown is in town Jan. 6.

It's back to the ACC on Jan. 10 against Clemson. The Deacs then will have to draw another deep breath before diving into the deep end of its schedule, a withering final stretch of games that includes a January slate that sees Wake play eight consecutive games against top-ranked competition.

"That's the thing that makes this league so unique," Prosser said. " Every game, there's nobody you can point to and circle on the schedule and say, 'OK, that's gonna be a win.' I think it's impossible in the ACC.

"Then we're throwing in Texas and a game at Cincinnati (Feb. 15). That's a stretch of 18 games that I would doubt anyone in the country would play."

After Texas, the Deacs are at No. 2 Duke (Jan. 17), host No. 3 Georgia Tech (Jan. 20), and then hit the road against No. 25 Florida State on Jan. 25 before hosting both Maryland (Jan. 29) and Virginia (Jan. 31).

"My father always used to say you don't get sharp teeth by eating oatmeal; you gotta chew on some raw meat every once in a while," Prosser joked. "I think if we're going to be a 'national' team then that's the kind of schedule we need to play. The NCAA selection committee has mandated that and we're trying to follow that mandate.

"Again it'll really challenge us. I just hope we have the ability to compete, but we'll see. I think our guys will want to play that kind of schedule."

Games to Watch
Massachusetts at Connecticut, Tuesday
The UGame, as it has been dubbed, finds the Minutemen (5-4) needing to play a full 40 minutes (not to mention, the game of their lives) against the gathering threat of the top-ranked Huskies. A year ago, UMass led 34-9 in the second half before losing.
Georgia at Pittsburgh, Tuesday
The 12-0 Panthers face a difficult task in having to host the 7-2 Bulldogs with guard Carl Krauser nursing an injured ankle.
North Carolina at Kentucky, Saturday
The Wildcats may have been knocked down a peg or two after their loss against Louisville, but the Tar Heels don't intend to serve as a stepping stone.
Skinner knows selection committee's watching
Boston College coach Al Skinner is as even-tempered a coach as you'll find in the Big East. So it seemed somewhat uncharacteristic when Skinner vented a little bit of frustration with the NCAA selection committee's decision to snub his team from the tournament last year after the Eagles scored an 82-64 nonconference victory over America East foe Stony Brook (Dec. 23).

"This is the third of the season -- our non-league schedule -- that hurt us last year," Skinner said, clearly still mindful of the stinging setbacks BC suffered last year against Northeastern and Holy Cross. "This is what we're trying to take care of, because we got terrible criticism for the losses we had, and we didn't get credit for the wins that we had. So we're trying to guard against that."

One of three Big East teams who have accepted invites to join the ACC, the 9-1 Eagles resume play after breaking for Christmas by playing a tough road game against future conference opponent Clemson. And while that game presented a challenge in its own right, Skinner was still haunted -- and still bothered -- by the selection committee's snub of his team a year ago.

The Eagles, he thought, more than erased those early-season blemishes by overcoming a season-ending neck injury to senior forward Uka Agbai, winning 10 conference games to clinch a first-place tie in the Big East's East Division, and along with it, the top seeding to the conference tourney in New York.

"It is clearly on my mind," Skinner said. "I don't know what we can do, but we're going try and take care of our business. If we got an opportunity to do what we have to do then that's what we're going to do.

"That's why these (non-conference) games are really, really important. If it (NCAA berth) doesn't happen, it's because we didn't earn it. But I'm not going to allow someone to say we didn't deserve it. It's not going to happen that way."

Around the East

  • On its longest winning streak since the 2001-02 season, 10th-ranked Saint Joseph's will attempt to improve to 10-0 when the Hawks host Delaware on Tuesday. Saint Joseph's is off to its best start since the 1964-65 squad opened with a 10-0 record. If it beats the Blue Hens, St. Joe's can reached its best start ever when it opens Atlantic 10 play Saturday at George Washington.

  • While the Hawks rank as the hottest team in the A-10, Rhode Island could be considered a close second (though people in Dayton might be inclined to disagree). The Rams entered Tuesday's game against America East favorite Vermont with an 9-2 record, marking URI's best start since the 1997-98 squad started the season 12-2. Eight of Rhody's wins, however, came before Christmas, marking the first time in school history any team had won that many games before the holidays. UConn transfer Scott Hazelton scored 10 points and had two rebounds in his URI debut in an 82-53 victory over New Hampshire (Dec. 21). Hazelton, who was 5-for-11 from the field, played in 42 games at UConn.

  • Third-ranked Georgia Tech is off to its best start ever after improving to 12-0 after its 86-65 victory Monday night over Virginia Commonwealth. The Yellow Jackets, who got a team-high 19 points from guard Marvin Lewis, attained their highest ranking in the polls since Feb. 3, 1986 when they were ranked No. 2.

    Michael Vega covers college basketball for The Boston Globe and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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