- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2007

It wasn’t long ago Wake Forest was running up and down the floor as well as anyone in the country. Who else remembers the Deacons ignoring defense as they surged into triple figures in an NCAA tournament loss to West Virginia two years ago?

Of course, Chris Paul was on that team. So was Justin Gray. And Eric Williams. But that was Paul’s last game; he would be an NBA lottery pick three months later. And Gray and Williams couldn’t carry Wake to anything more than a NIT berth last season.

Now, the Deacons might have bottomed out. After all, how much worse can it be for the previously dazzling Deacs to be held to 40 points in any game, even during a trip to Durham to face stingy Duke.

(I’ll admit the statistical minutiae miner in me was a little giddy when I saw Wake had 38 points in the closing seconds. After all, how many times has an ACC team scored less than 40 points since the advent of the shot clock? After scrambling to find a few books, there was a disheartening discovery: Clemson lost 62-38 to Miami just last season. But by the time I found that game, Wake had added a garbage bucket. The best laid plans. …)

Not that scoring 40 points is that much better than 38 (mathematically, it’s an improvement of 5.26 percent, which erudite Wake coach Skip Prosser would probably appreciate). But it was Wake’s first venture below 50 points since a 54-49 overtime loss to Davidson in 2000 on the way to the first of coach Dave Odom’s three NIT titles.

(Speaking of Odom, who has led South Carolina to two straight late March victory jaunts at the Garden, it would not be wise for Columbia merchants to start ordering much-anticipated NIT three-peat merchandise. The Gamecocks are 10-6 and just absorbed beatings from Florida and Kentucky by a combined 72 points — at home. Yowza!)

Odom also presided the last time Wake was held to 40 points, a 1999 loss to North Carolina. But you must go way, way back to find the last time the Deacons failed to broach the 40-point barrier.

Past the early years of the Odom Era (Hey, Wake had Rodney Rogers to keep things interesting). Past the Three-Year Gap that coincided with Bob Staak’s tenure (fortunately for the Deacons, Maryland basketball going Chernobyl in the mid-1980s coincided with this lean time and the struggles aren’t well remembered). Past Dean Smith’s deployment of the Four Corners to asphyxiate opponents.

No, it has been since Jan. 8, 1959 — a 44-34 loss at North Carolina — that Wake Forest didn’t reach 40 points. Ish Smith’s basket with a second left undoubtedly averted a mad scramble through the media guide on press row at Cameron Indoor to find this nugget. But it’s worth noting three things for the historical record:

(1) Given the score of that game and the absence of the shot clock, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if there were stretches of one team simply holding the ball. Can’t say that happened last night.

(2) Billy Packer was a freshman at Wake Forest when that game was played. That says a lot by itself.

(3) Wake Forest was just more than two years removed from moving from, well, Wake Forest to Winston-Salem thanks to a nice donation of land from a scion of the R.J. Reynolds tobacco fortune.

It never hurts to mention this bit of trivia at any opportunity.

All right, time to dispense with the history lesson and return to the original point: How did Wake Forest get so bad, so fast?

The Deacons certainly lost a ton from last year: Gray, Williams, Trent Strickland and Chris Ellis all averaged more than 19 minutes as Wake finished last in the conference. But that team was still highly regarded early in the season, and single-handedly helped Herb Sendek skedaddle out of Raleigh (for a destination that doesn’t expect national titles every year) after handing N.C. State consecutive losses in March.

One big reason: The evisceration of what looked like Prosser’s signature class. Paul, fellow guard Jeremy Ingram, forward Todd Hendley and center Kyle Visser came in a year after Gray and Williams, and suddenly it seemed the balance of power on Tobacco Road might include the boys from Krispy Kremeville for a while.

Certainly, it’s hard to find fault in Paul bolting for the pros. He was a remarkable talent even when compared to the plethora of point guards who populated the ACC during his time at Wake — Raymond Felton, Chris Duhon, Jarrett Jack, Julius Hodge, even (at times) John Gilchrist.

Ingram lasted until the first semester of his sophomore year; he transferred to East Carolina and is averaging 8.0 points and 18.3 minutes for a 5-11 team. Hendley was gone after his freshman year and ranks third for struggling UNC Wilmington with 10.5 points a game this season.

That leaves Visser, who has quietly pieced together a breakout season while being surrounded by freshmen, freshmen, more freshmen and a few sophomores. But there’s no juniors, and the only other senior is Michael Drum, who began his career at Division II Presbyterian and emerged as a steady but not flashy player last year.

With two seniors and the apparitions of Paul, Ingram and Hendley providing the veteran presence (or, in the words of Andy Dufresne, “second cousin to

Harvey the Rabbit”), Prosser needed a lot of young guys to play well. Instead, Wake hasn’t settled on a regular lineup, inconsistency rattling the Deacons more than any other team in the league (and that includes Maryland and home-and-away Jekyll-and-Hyde Virginia).

“Kids playing against men is usually not a good thing,” Prosser observed during Monday’s weekly ACC teleconference.

Alas, they will continue to do so for the rest of the season. Wake is 9-8 (1-4 ACC) after last night’s loss and is probably not going to make a run at a postseason berth in the next few weeks. And that makes the night Wake tangoed with West Virginia in an exchange of baskets and defensive meltdowns that lasted two overtimes, the night Paul took off his No. 3 jersey for the last time as winter prepared to yield to spring, the night those Tye-Dye shirts began to inexorably fade to the present reality, seem a lot less recent than 22 months ago.

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