Since Chris Paul left for the NBA in 2005, Wake Forest has been a slightly above-average team. But when big men Al-Farouq Aminu, Tony Woods and Ty Walker arrived on campus this fall as part of one of the nation's top recruiting classes, Winston-Salem, N.C., re-emerged on the college basketball map.
When the No. 21 Demon Deacons open a season of raised expectations on Friday at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum against North Carolina Central, they'll start as a ranked team for the first time in three years."Farouq, I feel like he's an NBA player," said senior guard Harvey Hale, who averaged 8.1 points last season. "Tony Woods could be an NBA player. Ty Walker could be an NBA player. All of them have NBA potential. At this level, everybody's good. You guys are in the ACC, you have to continually get better every practice, work on your game, and hopefully, good things will happen."Coach Dino Gaudio, who begins his second season following the death of Skip Prosser in July 2007, isn't as quick to praise his first-year players. The Demon Deacons, who have gone 49-46 the last three seasons, were 7-9 in the ACC in 2007-08 and haven't had a winning record in conference since going 13-3 in 2004-05, when Paul led the team to the second round of the NCAA tournament."This freshman class is as much bally-hooed (but) what you guys need to do is, one year later, evaluate where those classes are," he said. "This one's No. 1 (in the nation), who knows? Maybe they won't be in the top 30. It remains to be seen."Where the freshman should make their biggest impact is with field goal percentage and rebounding. Last season, Wake Forest was last in the 12-team ACC at 43.3 percent shooting and eighth with 36.8 rebounds per game.What remains to be seen is how the newcomers gel with the upperclassmen."The three biggest factors coming into the season were, No. 1, eliminate distractions," Gaudio said. "For us, those distractions are things off the court. ... (The) second thing is leadership -- if we get one guy leading us, we have a chance to be good. If we get two or three guys leading us, we could be very good. The third thing is -- when you have young, talented guys -- team chemistry."In its only exhibition game, the chemistry looked good as Wake Forest routed Division II Mount Olive 97-62 on Nov. 6. Junior L.D. Williams, who averaged 8.9 points last season, scored a team-high 22, Aminu recorded a double-double with 15 and 12 rebounds, Woods added 15 points and sophomore guard Jeff Teague had 12 assists.Teague was the Demon Deacons' second-leading scorer at 13.9 points per game last season behind James Johnson (14.6 ppg, 8.1 rebounds per game), who became the third Wake Forest freshman -- along with Paul and Rodney Rogers -- to be selected third-team All-ACC.Junior Ishmael Smith, who has started since arriving on campus as a freshman, averaged 8.6 points and 4.7 assists last season.North Carolina Central faces a daunting task in trying to end Wake Forest's 44-game home winning streak against in-state, non-conference opponents. Beginning their second season in Division I, the Eagles return three starters and seven players from last season's 4-26 team, most notably Bryan Ayala, who averaged a team-high 13.0 points to go with 4.0 assists per game in 2007-08.Wake Forest posted a 75-58 victory last season behind 16 points from Joshua Worthy, nephew of NBA Hall of Famer James Worthy.