Peral is a constant in the Deacon equation. A 6'10" utilityman, he averages 8.4 points and 4.3 rebounds while playing the sharpshooting perimeter game that he learned in his native Spain. "Ricky does his job in a quiet manner." Duncan says. "I'd say he's like your liver. You don't appreciate having it, but you sure do miss it when it's gone."
Woods, who on Jan. 23 became a starting forward, is growing every day as a low-post player, a benefit of serving as an apprentice to one of the game's masters: As of Sunday he led all ACC freshmen in points and rebounds, while playing just 19 minutes a game. "Loren is borrowing a lot from Tim, and he knows he has some huge shoes to fill next year," Rutland says. "We're just not sure yet how big his feet really are."
Despite the role-playing skills of this supporting cast, plenty of skeptics doubt whether Duncan's mates am give him enough help for Wake to win its first national title. Memories linger from last season's 83-63 defeat in the NCAA final eight, a loss in which Kentucky smothered Duncan, and no other Deacon picked up the slack. "I think all these players around Timmy—and even I, as his coach—approach every game with a real sense of responsibility, because we hate to let him down," Odom says. "We all appreciate that he's here with us when he could have been a millionaire right now in the NBA."
By returning to college for his senior season, Duncan passed up a shot at a guaranteed three-year, $9,385 million contract, which he would have gotten if he had been the first player selected in the draft. That's not a bad entry-level salary for a psychology major just out of school. To explain why he was willing to give up $3 million for one last college season, Duncan, 20, says part of the answer can be found in the book The Hurried Child, which details the dangers of forcing adult responsibility on young people.
Duncan's stature in the college game was probably best summed up by Wofford coach Richard Johnson on the eve of his Terriers' Jan. 29 date with the Deacons, in what can only loosely be described as a pep talk. "Let me tell you guys about who you're playing tomorrow," Johnson said. "Someday your six-year-old kid will ask you for a Tim Duncan jersey for Christmas. This is your chance to play a future NBA Hall of Famer, your turn to face the greatest player any of you will ever meet."
For now, anyway, Duncan swats away such talk as if it were one of Bellairs's subconscious hook shots. "I guess it's possible that someday people will look back at what I did this season and mention my name alongside guys like Walton and Ewing," Duncan said in the quiet locker room after the victory over Missouri. I don't really like to live in the past, but maybe when I'm 50, I'll sit on my Jet Ski alone in the ocean off St. Croix and reminisce for a moment or two about all I did this year—and then I'll ride off looking for another wave to jump."