Wake Forest is the latest stop in Seth Davis' tour of college hoops camps.
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Now this is what I call some good eats.
On Friday night, in the heart of Winston-Salem's arts district, I wolfed down some local flavor at Sweet Potatoes restaurant with Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser. I'm not a fish guy per se, but the waitress had recommended the NOLA fried catfish with such conviction, I just had to take a chance. As I polished off the scrumptious meal with a piece of bourbon pecan pie (topped by a scoop of warm whipped cream), I complimented Prosser on his ability to discern such quality Southern fare, despite his distinctly Northern pedigree. "Well," Prosser replied, "I did grow up on the south side of Pittsburgh."
Among his professional peers, Prosser is as well-liked for his personality as he is respected for his ability -- and that's saying a lot. Dinner conversation with him is far more likely to cover subjects like books, history, politics and family than basketball. We were having such a good time hanging with Dean Buchan, Wake's ultra-suave sports information director, and men's tennis coach JeffZinn, that I felt guilty when I finally broke out my notebook and queried Prosser about his team.
Maybe it was just the afterglow of the meal, but Prosser told me he really likes his squad. He does, however, concede it faces some challenges. Everybody talks about how the Deacons lost Chris Paul to the NBA, but they also lost a trio of seniors who had as much to do with last season's school-record 27 wins as Paul did. Taron Downey was a dependable backup point guard who drained two buzzer-beating 3s to extend Wake's second-round NCAA tourney game against West Virginia. Vytas Danelius was a skilled, if inconsistent, 6-foot-7 forward who presented a difficult matchup. And 6-foot-9 Jamaal Levy was the glue guy's glue guy, the only player on the team who expended more effort (and ability) on defense than offense.
What's more, last year's top shooting guard, 6-foot-3 senior Justin Gray, now moves to fill Paul's shoes at the point. Gray was recruited as a point guard but hasn't played the position full-time since high school. His shift leaves the Deacs with another void to fill on the wing. "I told Justin, I'm going to have a harder time dealing with losing my shooting guard than my point guard," Prosser told me.
This problem is exacerbated by a dearth of 3-point shooters on this team. Toward the end of Saturday's practice, Prosser strolled by and asked me what I thought. "I'm trying to figure out who's going to make shots for you besides Justin," I said. The coach grinned and replied, "I'd say that's a valid concern."
Here's another concern: I'm not crazy about teams whose primary strengths are in the frontcourt. Having big guys is important -- and Wake has one of the nation's best in 6-foot-9 senior forward Eric Williams -- but college basketball is a guard-oriented game. Given the choice, I'd prefer to have a team with good guards and questions up front than vice versa.
Another potential concern is the ongoing speculation that Prosser could be headed to Cincinnati at season's end. It's no secret that Prosser loves the Queen City -- he spent 16 years as an assistant and head coach at Xavier, and he still owns a home there -- and he'd be the most popular local choice to replace Bob Huggins. Prosser is determined not to discuss the Cincinnati scenario (not even in an off-the-record conversation following a great Southern meal), but the specter will hang over this program until the situation is resolved one way or the other.
Still, Prosser being Prosser, he seemed pretty optimistic about the approaching season, and he even likes the idea of starting out with subdued expectations. But I'm not sure expectations are all that subdued. This may seem hard to believe, but for the first time in school history, Joel Coliseum is completely sold out before the first game. Just about every preseason publication, as well as the first coaches' poll, has the Demon Deacons ranked in the top 20. Given what it lost, I might be inclined to say Wake doesn't deserve to be ranked that high, but it's not so easy coming up with 20 teams who deserve to be ranked ahead of it.