Skip Prosser has spent much of his coaching life at smaller programs, fighting for respect on the national scene. Wake Forest basketball has done much the same, usually being overshadowed by some of college basketball's top programs in its own conference.
This could be the year that Prosser and the Demon Deacons take center stage.
Wake returns eight players who played more than 12 minutes per game last year for a team that won 21 and advanced to the Sweet 16. That uncommon depth and experience in today's high-turnover college basketball world have pushed expectations high. But now that he's getting respect, Prosser is trying to deflect it.
"It doesn't affect us," he said. "You cannot run away from those expectations, but they are meaningless once the ball starts bouncing."
Prosser knows he can rely on one of the nation's best backcourts, led by sophomore Chris Paul. But Wake was inconsistent last season and must focus better, especially on defense.
The Deacons proved they could score, leading the ACC at 83.5 points per game, but they were the league's worst team defensively.
"We scored so many points so early in the year I think our guys fell into the trap that we could just outscore teams," Prosser said. "Once we got to the ACC season that certainly didn't happen. You have to guard as well. We will guard much better [this] year. That's not a variable, not a question mark. It has to become a reality."
FRONTCOURTA key will be whether Vytas Danelius can return to form. As a sophomore in 2002-03, Danelius averaged 12.3 points and 7.5 rebounds. Then injuries slowed his conditioning, damaging his game and his relationship with his coaches.
If Danelius can salvage his senior season, he'll start at power forward, with Jamaal Levy at small forward and Eric Williams at center. With Danelius out of the lineup, Levy often was forced to play out of position.
At small forward, Levy possesses the skills to dominate, if not the aggression. At 6-foot-9 and quick, he's a matchup problem. He's Wake's best defender and has a knack for finding rebounds, despite his slender frame. Levy's not much of a perimeter shooter, but he can get his shot off over most defenders and runs the break well.
Last summer, Williams lost a lot of weight, and it resulted in a more productive season. This summer, he worked more on his skills. Few ACC players can match Williams' bulk, but he needs a signature offensive move and more of a fighter's nature.
Trent Strickland and Kyle Visser provide energy off the bench. Strickland is a spectacular dunker, who also can be a great defender, though Wake would be much more explosive if he harnesses his talent.
Visser was last year's surprise, proving to be aggressive and quick with a nice offensive game. He and Williams are foul prone, but they give Prosser options.
BACKCOURTPaul finished third in the ACC in assists, and he became the team's leader, giving the mostly reserved Deacons some bravado on the court. But Paul needs to be more aggressive with his offense. He's a threat to score in many ways, but he sometimes was too deferential.
Justin Gray, the ACC's third-leading scorer, doesn't have to be told to shoot. Gray is a streaky scorer who stays confident. He needs to calm his wild drives and improve his defense.
Two years ago, Taron Downey was the starting point guard on a team that won the ACC regular-season title. With the emergence of Paul, he's found himself as the third guard. Downey can be a clutch shooter, but it's his defense and ball-handling that will earn him playing time.
FINAL ANALYSISProsser has all the pieces, but fitting them together proved challenging last season. "I don't think we ever got into a comfortable flow or substitution rotation," Prosser said, "but we tried different things because we were disappointed with how we were playing."
The return to form of Danelius should help with stability and rebounding and eliminate the need for reliance on three-guard lineups. Prosser also must help Wake settle on an approach: Are they run-and-gun or will they pound it inside?
Most important, though, Paul, Gray and Levy are talented and fearless, just the kind of leaders that Wake Forest and Prosser need.