Wake Forest rolls on even without Howard

ACC Player of Year gone, but 5-0 Demon Deacons have not missed a beat

ACC notebook

December 12, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Wake Forest might be missing the premier player in the Atlantic Coast Conference from a year ago, but the Demon Deacons are not to be pitied in the least.

Are they as strong this time around without ACC Player of the Year Josh Howard at small forward? Maybe not. But is Wake Forest equipped to make a serious run at its second straight, regular-season league title? Absolutely.

This year's model is a smaller, lighter, quicker version of the team that won its first ACC regular-season title in 41 years.

They aren't as good on the boards as they were last year, when the Demon Deacons led the nation in rebounding margin. But they apply more pressure defensively, generate knockout runs with it and can score from anywhere on the floor.

They don't have Howard, but they do have a fast-improving post player in sophomore center Eric Williams, who has vastly upgraded his physical conditioning. They have proven scorers and rebounders in forwards Jamaal Levy and Vytas Danelius and an excellent backcourt rotation led by the possible freshman of the year in point guard Chris Paul.

If anyone doubts the Demon Deacons (5-0), refer to their 100-67 destruction of Indiana in the recent ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

"Our execution on offense has lagged at times, we're not even close to the rebounding team we need to be, but we're scoring off our defense and winning by large margins. I couldn't be more pleased," Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said.

Prosser, in his third season in Winston-Salem, has transformed Wake from a bulky, deliberate team into a squad built on full-court pressure and the ability to sustain an up-tempo with a three-guard set. And Paul, the 6-foot newcomer with outstanding quickness and poise, personifies the look. He leads the ACC in steals (3.8 per game), is third in assists (5.8), second in turnover ratio (4.1) and third in free-throw shooting percentage (.875).

"He's a pure point guard who grew up being the quarterback of whatever team he was on. Kids gravitate to him," Prosser said.

Paul leads a backcourt with proven toughness. Junior Taron Downey had an appendectomy about two weeks before the Nov. 13 season opener, then returned to score 20 points against Memphis that day. Sophomore Justin Gray missed several weeks last year with a broken jaw, then returned with a protective mask and scored 18 points in a victory over Duke.

In the frontcourt, Danelius, a second-team all-conference player last year, has nearly recovered from a series of nagging injuries that have limited him. And the 6-9 Williams, who reported to Wake at 323 pounds 16 months ago, is down to 272 and playing remarkably better because of it.

Williams leads the team in scoring (16.2) and field-goal percentage (.574), although Prosser would like to see him improve his rebounding (5.2), sharpen his post moves and develop a mean streak.

"Eric still doesn't demand the ball as much as he should. He should express his displeasure more when he doesn't get the ball," Prosser said. "He's a great kid who wants to please."

Cavs off to fast start

The Virginia Cavaliers are off to another fine start, which is no surprise, since they are playing another soft early-season schedule under coach Pete Gillen. Virginia has beaten Mount St. Mary's, Virginia Tech, High Point, Minnesota and VMI, with coming dates against James Madison, Loyola Marymount and Coastal Carolina.

Gillen, who has had numerous underachieving teams during his first five years, says he thinks this 5-0 team will be able to hold its own against the ACC. Much of his optimism centers on chemistry. In other words, the Cavaliers, led by guards Todd Billet and Derrick Byars and forward Devin Smith, have rid themselves of glaring distractions.

Guards Keith Jenifer and Jermaine Harper, who made headlines for the wrong reasons last year, have left the school after problematic seasons. Harper served a five-game suspension after his arrest a year ago on a charge of driving under the influence. Jenifer was suspended in mid-February for conduct detrimental to the team, after his arrest in Charlottesville on assault and battery charges that were later dismissed.

"We had distractions, and we can't have that. That saps emotion and energy from the team," Gillen said.

Freshman class

Seven games into Maryland's season, the five-man freshman class has yielded two surprises. Guard D.J. Strawberry has surpassed expectations by becoming the team's sixth man. He can play three positions and, with the transfer of Andre Collins, has become the backup point guard behind John Gilchrist.

And guard Mike Jones, the highly touted shooter out of Thayer Academy, has barely made it onto the court. Jones, who is struggling trying to adapt to Maryland's offense and has been exposed on defense, did not appear in games against Wisconsin or Florida and has averaged 6.8 minutes in the Terps' other five contests.

Jones is averaging 2.6 points on 31.3 percent shooting.

"A lot of people have judged Mike Jones over the years on his ability to shoot the basketball," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "This is important, but you have to be a well-rounded player. You have to play defense. You have to be able to handle the ball, rebound. Mike shouldn't get upset [over a lack of playing time]. He is going to be a great player."

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