The number two seed in the East Region, Wake Forest enters Sunday's 3:30 p.m. CST tip on a serious roll, having won eight of its last nine games with the only loss coming to North Carolina State in the ACC Tournament. With a record of 25-5 overall, the Deacons should be a tough challenge for a Tiger team.
Led by ACC Player of the Year Josh Howard, the Demon Deacons were the class of a down year in the conference. Averaging 19.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, Howard has been favorably compared to Auburn's Marquis Daniels as a player who is capable of beating an opponent a number of different ways. The matchup between Daniels and Howard is sure to be the highlight of the day and Auburn Coach Cliff Ellis said the two could match up with anyone around at their position.
"You have two small forwards on the court that are two of the best in the country," Ellis said. Commenting on Howard, the Auburn coach said, "Without a doubt, he's a complete player. He's a complete player who can dribble, pass, shoot, rebound, defend. They are very similar. He's a great player. Marquis Daniels is a great player and Josh Howard is a great player."
While he probably won't be matched up with Howard much in Sunday's game on the defensive end because of the big lineup the Demon Deacons often employ, Daniels said he relished the challenge of facing one of the top players in the nation. Averaging 18.1 points and 6.2 rebounds himself and coming off one of the best performances of his career, the Orlando, Fla., native said he's ready for Sunday's game to get started and see what happens.
"I don't know how much I will be matched up with him," Daniels said. "I'll take on the challenge and I know he'll be willing to take on the challenge. I don't think it will take much intensity away from the offensive end. You have to play on both ends and I played a lot of defense on Carroll (Pat Carroll) and I tried not to let him catch the ball. That's pretty much the same thing you have to do with Josh Howard. Once he gets the ball in his hands he's a pretty dangerous player."
A young team with the exception of Howard, Wake Forest starts three sophomores and a freshman in addition to the senior. The next best of the bunch is second team All-ACC forward Vytas Danelius, a 6-8, 228-pound sophomore from Lithuania. Averaging 12.6 points and 7.5 rebounds, he is very active and is capable of playing on the perimeter and in the paint.
Joining Howard and Danelius on the front line are 6-9, 180, Jamaal Levy and 6-9, 270, Eric Williams. A sophomore, Levy averages 7.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Coming off a career-high 20-point performance against ETSU, Williams enters the game averaging 8.8 points and 4.2 rebounds per contest.
Off the bench the Demon Deacons bring on two very capable players in guard Justin Gray and forward Chris Ellis. Both freshmen, they are scoring 15 points per game and pulling down six rebounds. Most of that comes from the 6-2 Gray, who was named to the All-ACC freshman team after scoring 12.1 points per game. A deadly shooter from the perimeter, he had an off night against ETSU when he made just 2-16 shots from the field and scored 11 points. He will be looking for redemption Sunday and Auburn will have to be wary of the young gunslinger.
Freshman Trent Strickland (6-5, 190) is also expected to see some action as both teams will be hoping to stay fresh for the end of the game after playing a game on Friday that was not decided until the finals shot.
"It's going to be a 40-minute game at least," Ellis said. "The more you play back-to-back, the more depth comes into play. I think you'll see more bench play and I think perhaps you might see that with Wake Forest because I don't think they went into their bench strong against East Tennessee. I wouldn't be surprised to see both teams use their bench more because you are back-to-back."
While the offensive end gets the most attention for the Demon Deacons, where they make their hay is on the backboards. Wake Forest leads the nation in rebounding margin. Reminiscent of Kentucky with the way they play defense and send everyone to rebound on just about every possession, the challenge for Auburn big men Kyle Davis, Marco Killingsworth and Brandon Robinson is a big one. It's one that if they can handle could mean the difference between going home or advancing to Albany, New York for the Sweet 16.
"It's going to be big because when they take shots it seems like everybody crashes," Davis said. "We just have to box out stronger and play as hard as possible. It's a personal challenge. We just have to take it upon ourselves to play harder and try our best to get every rebound."