DeaconSports Previews WFU Basketball

DeaconSports has put together a 3,500+ word story recapping last season as well as previewing 2002-2003. Filled with quotes from Coach Prosser, DeaconSports presents our look at Wake's 2002-2003 basketball team.

On April 24, 2001, Wake Forest University athletic director Ron Wellman announced Wake Forest's new head basketball coach, former Xavier University head coach Skip Prosser. On that day, Wellman officially brought back excitement, energy, enthusiasm, and allure to a Wake Forest program that had come to a standstill.

The influx of new blood in the Demon Deacon program brought by the coaching change is one that is already paying off big for Wake Forest's basketball program. A new atmosphere has enveloped the basketball community, triggering much excitement for Deacon fans everywhere. Facilities are being built and remodeled, top-notch recruits are flocking to take a peek at the progress Coach Prosser and his staff are making at Wake, and the humorous Prosser is keeping fans and the media laughing with his witty humor.

Coach Prosser has just a few things on his agenda at Wake – namely winning and turning his kids into quality individuals who leave Wake Forest with a degree. So far, Prosser has been successful in accomplishing his objectives, graduating all five Demon Deacon scholarship seniors last season while leading the program to a winning record and an NCAA Tournament berth during the 2001-2002 season.

The style of basketball in the Prosser era, a fast-paced up-and-down game, is more electrifying as well – a game that kids love to play in the modern era. "I think our up-tempo style of play is attractive," Coach Prosser noted. Nothing could be closer to the truth for Wake Forest fans, especially in contrast to the style of play Wake Forest fans saw in Winston-Salem in the Dave Odom years leading up to Coach Prosser's takeover.

This exciting style of play was more than evident in Coach Prosser's first season at the helm of the Wake Forest program as the Deacs used an up-tempo style of play to cruise to a 21-12 record and a third place finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Deacs also made it to the semifinal round of the ACC tournament and advanced to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament before suffering a narrow defeat to a high-powered Oregon squad.

The road to success in 2001-2002 was not all easy for the Deacs, however. Wake Forest began the season in the Preseason NIT against UNC-Wilmington. In the Deacons' opener at the Joel in the Prosser era, the Deacs needed a basket from Darius Songaila in the waning seconds to pull off a 79-78 win over the Seahawks. The road did not get easier after that, however.

In just the second game under Wake's new head man, Wake Forest had to travel to Arkansas to face the Arkansas Razorbacks in front of 17,820 screaming fans in the team's road opener. The Deacons were up to the test, however, and pulled off a 76-71 victory, improving to 2-0 on the young season.

After a blowout win over Elon, a game that was not part of the Preseason NIT, the Deacs took off to Madison Square Garden to face Fresno State. Wake Forest used late game heroics from Darius Songaila once again. Songaila followed a missed shot with a dunk with just 1.7 seconds left on the clock to help the Deacons improve to 4-0 on the season with a 62-61 win over then #21 Fresno State.

The winning streak would stop there, however, as the Deacs ran into a roadblock by the name of ‘Syracuse' in the finals of the Preseason NIT. Late turnovers and the spectacular play of Syracuse guard DeShaun Williams killed the Deacons' chances of victory, dooming WFU to a 4-1 record heading into a showdown with Minnesota.

Wake Forest dispatched of Minnesota 85-79 before running into a hungry Kansas Jayhawk squad in Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas. Just a year after the Deacs demolished the Jayhawks 84-53 in Winston-Salem, Kansas nipped Wake Forest 83-76. After handily pounding South Carolina State 115-75, the Deacs went into conference play with a 6-2 record.

The fact that the team's record at that point in the season included wins over the likes of Arkansas and Fresno State both excited and impressed Deacon fans. Deacon fans showed confidence in first-year head man Skip Prosser and his veteran group of ballplayers heading into ACC play.

Wake Forest opened the ACC season with perennial ACC bottom feeder Florida State at the Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem. The Deacs had no trouble with the ‘Noles, trouncing FSU 93-72. Behind Darius Songaila's 29 points, Wake Forest speared the Seminoles to improve to 7-2, 1-0 on the year.

St. Francis (PA) came calling – softly – next. The Deacons dispatched of St. Francis (PA) in a flash, dominating the Red Flash 89-60. Wake's other Saintly opponent was not as kind as St. Francis, however. Following the Deacons' win over St. Francis (PA), the Deacs fell to St. John's 70-62 at Madison Square Garden. Marcus Hatten scored 26 to lead the Red Storm to victory over Wake, dropping Coach Prosser's club to 8-3 on the young season.

After a short break for the holidays, Wake Forest broke out the switches and gave a tough Marquette team just their second beating of the year. Broderick Hicks scored 14 points to help the Deacons prevail over the Golden Eagles 64-59. Josh Howard, Darius Songaila, Craig Dawson, and Antwan Scott all scored double figures as well for Wake Forest.

Following Wake's win over Marquette, the Deacs won four more straight. The Deacs started out with a home victory over the Richmond Spiders 67-52. Following the win over the Spiders, Wake Forest bussed to North Carolina where the Deacs faced off with the Tar Heels at the Smith Center. The Deacons stomped the Tar Heels and eventually ran away with an 84-62 victory over the Matt Doherty's downtrodden team. Josh Howard led the Deacon attack with 20 points and five steals on the night.

Wake Forest followed up their emotional win over UNC with blowout victories over Navy and Clemson by scores of 87-65and 96-55. A balanced scoring attack in each of those games helped the Deacs' record improve their record to 13-3, 3-0.

The roughest portion of the schedule was yet to come, however. In back-to-back-to-back games, the Deacons faced off with Virginia and Duke on the road, followed by a home game against the Terrapins of Maryland. All of those games ended in losses – each by double figures. Wake lost those games 86-74, 103-80, and 85-63, respectively, before recovering at the Joel.

The Deacs did not just recover however - they went on a winning streak of their own. Wake Forest took out Georgia Tech at home, North Carolina State and Florida State on the road, and North Carolina at home to improve to 17-6 on the season heading into the final seven games of the season.

Unfortunately, the rollercoaster took a turn for the worst for those last seven games. Wake Forest went just 2-5 over that span, however, losing to Cincinnati, Clemson, Duke, Maryland, and Georgia Tech and pulling out wins over Virginia and North Carolina State.

With the season finale win over the Wolfpack, the Deacs finished the regular season 19-12 overall and 9-7 in ACC play during Skip Prosser's first year on the bench in Winston-Salem. That record gave Wake Forest the 3rd seed in the ACC tournament, providing the experienced Deacs a chance to finish the season with a 3-0 record against Georgia Tech.

The ACC tournament opener proved to bring both good and bad news to the Wake Forest program. While the Deacs essentially clinched an NCAA Tournament berth with a victory over the Yellow Jackets, Wake Forest also lost one of their key players, small forward Steve Lepore, to a left knee injury during the first half.

Unfortunately, the ACC Tournament would end after just two games for the Deacs. Wake Forest fell in the second round to the Duke Blue Devils, 79-64, setting up the Demon Deacons as a 7th seed in the Midwest Regional of the NCAA Tournament.

Wake Forest took advantage of their positioning in the tournament in 2002, running past 10th seed Pepperdine 83-74 in Sacramento, California. Craig Dawson led Wake's charge to the 2nd round with 19 points on the afternoon while Darius Songaila added 18 more. With the victory, the Deacons moved on to face Oregon in the Round of 32.

The Oregon Ducks proved a tough test for the Deacs. Oregon's trio of Luke Ridnour, Frederick Jones, and Luke Jackson proved to be too much for the injury-ridden Deacon squad. The three combined for 81 points, leading the Ducks past Wake Forest 92-87, knocking Coach Prosser's squad out of the NCAA Tournament.

Overall, Wake Forest finished their season at 21-13 overall, 9-7 in ACC play. The Deacons used their athleticism and experience to get their first NCAA tournament win since 1997 when Tim Duncan was still hitting the hardwood in Winston-Salem. While the Demon Deacons lost five key players from their 2001-2002 campaign in Darius Songaila, Antwan Scott, Craig Dawson, Broderick Hicks, and Ervin Murray, Wake Forest looks to improve on last seasons's results in 2002-2003.

Between the five, Wake Forest loses 50.9 points per game, or 62% of their total offense. The Deacs also lose 38.8 rebounds per game, 49% of the team's total rebounding production during the 2001-2002 season.

Those five graduating seniors all started at times for the Demon Deacon program last year and in years prior to their senior seasons as well. While their contributions on the court will be sorely missed this season, their leadership qualities, especially for such a young team, may be missed even more.

The 2002-2003 version of the Wake Forest basketball team is an athletic group that will bring that electrifying running game day-in and day-out. The group is also extraordinarily young, extraordinarily inexperienced, but also extraordinarily talented.

Five freshmen and three sophomores are on scholarship this season, leaving just three upperclassmen on the Wake Forest basketball roster for 2002-2003. Those three, senior swing guards Josh Howard and Steve Lepore and junior center Dshamal Schoetz have all been battling injuries, however.

After sitting out his entire freshman season, the 7-0 Schoetz suffered a knee injury last year, keeping him out of game action for a second straight year. He is expected to be ready to play this season when Wake Forest opens up with Yale on November 27 in Winston-Salem.

Meanwhile, Howard and Lepore have both sat out many of the team's preseason workouts for the upcoming season. Howard has struggled with injuries over the past year, suffering from an ankle injury last season and developing shin splints during the summer. Lepore tore the ACL in his left knee in the 2002 ACC Tournament against Georgia Tech and is not expected to return to until well after the season begins.

The absence of Lepore from practice through the first couple weeks leaves Howard as the lone upperclassmen with playing time participating in practice – propelling Howard into the role of the ‘leader' on this year's ballclub.

As the team's leader, everything will start with and revolve around small forward Josh Howard this year. And why shouldn't it? The 6-6 215 pound senior was second on the team in both scoring and rebounding a year ago, averaging 14.3 points and 7.9 boards per game over the course of his junior season. Howard is also the team's leader on defense. With long arms and great quickness for his size, Howard also led the Deacons in steals.

Proficient in all aspects of his game, Howard was selected 2nd Team All-ACC for his efforts during his junior season. With continued improvement, Howard is likely to be a first-team All-ACC selection, maybe even the ACC's Player of the Year, after his senior campaign is complete.

Coach Skip Prosser believes that Howard is one of, if not the best player in the ACC. "With a healthy Josh Howard, [our strongest position] would be the small forward spot," Deacon head coach Skip Prosser said. "Josh has the ability to play the three, two, and maybe even the four for us. When he's healthy, I certainly wouldn't trade him for anybody in the ACC."

While Howard will star on this year's squad, the Deacs have plenty more talent on the roster, most of which is raw, undeveloped, and inexperienced.

At center, Coach Skip Prosser may use a committee of players to fill the position. Junior Dshamal Schoetz, sophomore Vytas Danelius, and freshmen Chris Ellis and Eric Williams will all see time at the center spot this season. "Dshamal [Schoetz] is going to get a look at center along with Chris [Ellis] and Eric [Williams]," Prosser noted. "There may be times that we go small with either Vytas [Danelius] or Chris [Ellis] back there."

This position may be the position of most concern for the staff, as only Danelius has seen any playing time at the center position at the college level. The Deacs need Schoetz, Ellis, and Williams to step up and fill the void left by the graduation of Darius Songaila and Antwan Scott in order to ensure that the Deacs have a good season.

"I think Chris Ellis and Eric Williams have done a good job [preparing for college basketball] and will play for us in the post this year," Prosser said. "They're both doing well and I think it's tough when you count on freshmen, but that's the way it is right now."

At the power forward position, Danelius, Ellis, and Jamaal Levy will likely see quality minutes for Skip Prosser's club. Danelius, a native of Lithuania, averaged 6.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per contest last season for the Deacs in just under 17 minutes of play per ballgame. An athletic power forward, Danelius has great leaping ability that will be needed for the Deacons to control the boards with a young frontcourt.

Marietta, Georgia product Chris Ellis will also use his muscular 6-6 265 pound frame to do some damage in the post. Although Chris Ellis is the son of longtime NBA star Dale Davis, their games are nothing alike. The elder Ellis was known for his remarkably accurate jumpshot. At this point in his career, the younger Ellis would rather bang and muscle his way to the basket down low. Ellis is expected to pick up quality minutes this season in a Wake Forest uniform.

6-8 180 pound Panamanian Jamaal Levy will more than likely pick up a few minutes at the power forward spot for the Deacons, but will largely be used as a small forward in 2002-2003. The lanky Levy played in 29 games during his freshman year, averaging just nine minutes per outing. He averaged a mere 2.4 points and two rebounds per game during that time. His game came on strong at the end of the season, however, and he is expected to pick up even more minutes during his sophomore campaign, especially if injuries continue to nag Wake's two seniors, Howard and Lepore.

Along with Levy and Howard, Lepore could contribute at the three spot if his recovery from his left knee injury goes as scheduled. Although Lepore struggled with his shot at times last season, the North Olmsted, Ohio resident has a great shot when it is on and is a perpetual hustler, oftentimes bringing down rebounds in traffic, even amongst taller opponents.

Freshman Trent Strickland may also compete for time at the small forward position this season. Just like Deacon senior Josh Howard, Strickland spent one season improving his basketball skills at Hargrave Academy in Virginia before signing with Wake Forest. Strickland will be a valuable force in the league during his career at Wake, thanks in part to his extraordinary defense. Strickland, who will don the number 32 jersey this season, is working hard to improve his game, mainly his jump shot, heading into his freshman season in the ACC. "Trent Strickland is a small forward type," Coach Prosser said. "He's working very hard and is very athletic. Right now, he's trying to be a better jump shooter."

At the shooting guard, Howard will probably see some minutes along with Lepore and Strickland. Freshmen Richard Joyce and Justin Gray may also be called upon to fill some minutes at the shooting guard position. The 6-5 Joyce has a great jump shot and excellent jumping ability.

However, Coach Skip Prosser notes that Joyce still has plenty of work to do before entering the ranks of a quality player in the ACC. "Richard's working real hard right now in terms of his athleticism horizontally," Prosser said. "He jumps real well vertically and is very athletic, but he needs to move his feet quicker." Once that is done, expect Joyce to contribute great things to this Deacon program.

Finally, at the point guard position, sophomore Taron Downey returns to lead a Deacon squad that averaged just under 15 turnovers per game last season. Downey ran the point for the Deacons last year with great success. Playing 16 minutes per game, Downey scored 4.5 points per game. More importantly, however, Downey ran the Deacon offense efficiently most of the season, helping the Deacs put together a winning season.

Freshman Justin Gray will also see time at the point guard position. The 6-2 native of the Queen City, Charlotte, North Carolina, spent his junior and senior seasons at Oak Hill Academy in Oak Hill, Virginia. At Oak Hill, Gray played the shooting guard and point guard positions, spending his junior season at the shooting guard and his senior year at the point. While Gray already has a great jump shot, Coach Prosser plans to play Gray primarily at the point guard position this season.

"I think Justin Gray will have to play the point for us," Coach Prosser said. "He shoots the ball very well. He's not a true point guard yet," Prosser continued, "but that's the transition we're trying to get him to make."

With a group of player as young as this current Deacon squad, upsets are bound to happen unless the coaching staff stays on the team to continue to focus on teams one game at a time. Coach Prosser knows this and is telling his kids to focus on just one team during the preseason – Yale.

The Deacs will open the 2002-2003 season by hosting the Bulldogs at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum on November 27th. Already, the team's focus is on that game, and that game only.

"I don't worry about [who else is on our schedule] right now," said Coach Prosser. "We're just trying to be 1-0. Yale will be a tough opener. They won 20-plus games last year. They return most of their guys, almost all of their starting group. They went down last year and beat Clemson at Clemson and I'm sure they will try to build on that experience. I think this game will be every bit as difficult as Wilmington was last year but we'll have a far less experienced team. I don't really worry much beyond that. One of our preseason goals was to be 1-0 and that's what we're trying to do in preparation for the Yale game."

Wake Forest fans do worry about this year's schedule, however. Other than the always strenuous schedule the ACC presents, Wake Forest will face various other quality non-conference opponents this season. The Deacons will host big name programs including Temple and St John's in Winston-Salem this season. Other non-conference opponents visiting the Joel include Southern Methodist, South Carolina State, North Carolina A&T, Bethune Cookman, and Elon. Meanwhile, the Deacs will take their act on the road to Wisconsin, Richmond, and Marquette this season.

While this group is extremely young with just two seniors, one junior who has not played a single minute of collegiate basketball, three sophomores, and five freshmen, Coach Prosser has plenty of reason for worry this season. Prosser knows that his team has plenty of talent, but realizes that talent alone is not always enough to compete for championships at the ACC and national levels.

"I think great teams have both talent and experience," Prosser said. "I think we'll be talented again, but not nearly as experienced. We just have to do what we can to try to force-feed that experience to the kids.

"When you count on freshmen to carry you, that's tough," Prosser continued. "But I think we have some talented kids. They want to compete for the championship of this league each and every year. And that's our goal that we strive to do.

"There is no way you can prepare kids for the ACC until they actually go through it," Prosser noted. "You can talk about it, but until they go through it, you just don't know. We're just going to try to eliminate as much margin for error as we can in the preseason and hope for the best when we throw it up in late November."

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