Team preview: Wake Forest

Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2004-05 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: October 22, 2004, 11:51 AM ET
Blue Ribbon Yearbook

Editor's Note: Insider has teamed with Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, long known as the Bible of college basketball, to provide a comprehensive look at all 326 Division I teams. Previews of Connecticut, last season's NCAA Champion, and Wake Forest, No. 1 in ESPN.com's preseason rankings, are available to all readers, but only Insiders get access to previews of every team.

COACH AND PROGRAM

The way Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser figures, it's his team's turn to be the premier stop along basketball-rich Tobacco Road.

The other three ACC schools in North Carolina-Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State-have each won multiple national championships. Wake's only trip to the Final Four was in 1962, long before the Fab Four from Liverpool invaded America.

Through the years, the Deacons have watched as its bigger brothers in the state succeeded with superstars like David Thompson, Phil Ford, Michael Jordan, Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and Jason Williams. But even with Tim Duncan, who for three years was the best amateur player in the world, the Deacons have not been able to get their program, which operates under the difficult circumstances that come with being one of the smallest Division I schools in the country, back into position to challenge for the national championship.

Blue Ribbon expects that to change this year, which is why Prosser's Demon Deacons are our preseason No. 1. It helps that the Deacons also have our Preseason Player of the Year Chris Paul, the dynamic sophomore point guard, plus three battle-tested seniors who know what it will take to help Wake survive one of the most demanding schedules in NCAA basketball. That gives Prosser one of the deepest, most talented teams in the country.

Put it this way: Wake not only has all five starters returning from a team that won 21 games last year, it essentially has six returning starters, at least until Prosser decides how to structure his offense. He could use senior Vytas Danelius, who struggled with injury and confidence last year, as a starting power forward, or he could go with the three-guard lineup that was deadly at times last year, thanks to the excitement generated by the sensational Paul, first-team All-ACC shooter Justin Gray and the reliable Taron Downey.

More likely, Prosser will change things around to better exploit opponents' weaknesses, changing styles and lineups the way he did two years ago when the Demon Deacons won their first ACC regular-season championship since 1962. That was the year that Billy Packer and Company made it to the Final Four, beating UCLA in the consolation game for a third-place finish, the best in school history.

Last year, the Deacons returned to the Sweet 16 for the first time since the Duncan era, losing a heart-breaker in the third round to St. Joseph's, a team that was able to exploit some of the Deacons' defensive deficiencies.

With so much experience and talent returning, Prosser and his players know that there will be exceedingly high expectations for the coming year. So far, however, it hasn't affected their preparation in any way.

"One, so much of [being picked preseason No. 1] is an acknowledgement of what these particular guys have accomplished," Prosser said. "That being said, since it is in the past, it has almost no bearing on what happens in the future."

Prosser learned two years ago about what expectations mean. That year, the Deacons were picked to finish seventh in the league and wound up winning the regular-season championship. He just hopes things aren't reversed this year.

"Expectations don't always pan out," Prosser said. "I remind our guys about that all the time."

Not all was perfect last year. Prosser was forced by injuries to change lineups and rotations constantly, switching from a three-guard lineup to a tall but quick lineup and then back to the perimeter-oriented team. Prosser can be lauded for his versatility, but there is something to be said for stability and the Deacons didn't really have it last year.

There was a four-game losing streak in January, with three of the losses coming to Top 20 teams Texas, Duke and Georgia Tech. There were two straight losses to end the regular season and another early exit from the ACC Tournament, where the Deacons were upset in the first round by eventual champion Maryland.

The Deacons struggled on defense and in rebounding, two things that should improve if Danelius returns from his disappointing, and some say confidence-destroying junior year, in which he struggled with several different injuries.

Prosser wants to see across-the-board improvement on defense.

"Two years ago, we were No. 11 in the country in field-goal percentage defense," Prosser said. "Basically, with a lot of the same guys and a lot of the same drills, we would have been 11th in the ACC if we had had 11 teams last year. Every offensive category we were at the top and every defensive category we were at the bottom. "We had so much success so early when we got off to that 11-0 start that I think subconsciously, and maybe it was a reflection of having no seniors, we got into the mindset that we would just outscore guys. In this league it is difficult to do that."

And it's difficult to do that against any team as March progresses. So the Deacon players spent the summer thinking about defense. Gray said that during pickup games, any time a team scored a couple of baskets in a row, the game would come to a halt and the players would talk about defense.

"It's not a secret that we have to improve our defense," Paul said. "As soon as Oct. 16 rolls around, we are going to be eager to prove that we can play defense. Coach always tells us we have one of the best offensive teams in the country and we just have to prove that we can play defense. It's just whether or not we want to.

"Last year taught us so many different kinds of things that I think will help us this year. Just knowing how many games we lost because of defense. That is going to motivate people throughout the season just to lock down and keep their man in front of them. Playing man-to-man, you just have to hold up your end of the bargain."

For all the talk of where Paul may take the Deacons, Prosser insists his talented point guard isn't the person who will be most responsible for the Deacons' success this year. One of the things missing from last year's team, which had no scholarship seniors on the roster, was experienced leadership, something that will fall on the shoulders this year of seniors Danelius, Jamaal Levy and Downey.

"The backbone of this team will be our three seniors," Prosser said. "I think those guys collectively have to accept that responsibility. Every aspect of what we are trying to do in these coming months, they will be the divining rod of how that all works out, whether it starts with defense or whatever.

"So much of it will begin and end with those three guys setting a positive tone. They have been through a lot, they have accomplished a lot. In the three years they have been here we have won four NCAA Tournament games, which is four more than in the four years prior to their arrival. I think they should be applauded for that.

"I am of that belief that, as seniors, they have the advantage of no choice, which I think is a great advantage. This is their last go-round. They have no choice but to make it special. I hope they accept that challenge to make this the best Wake team it can be."

That won't be easy. The Deacons, who have won at least 20 games in each of Prosser's three years at the school, have one of the most challenging schedules in the country, with games at Illinois in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, at Cincinnati, at New Mexico.

"It's a meat-grinder of a schedule," Prosser said.

But this is a motivated team, one that wants desperately to prove it belongs at the top of the college game. With plenty of talent and a deep roster, that shouldn't be hard to do.

"We just need to play to our level every night," said Gray, the first-team All-ACC shooting guard. "We can't play down to the competition. All the teams that have been preseason No. 1, they usually just come out and play. I think if our guys come out and do that …"

He didn't need to finish the sentence: Everyone on the team knows what the expectations are for the coming year. The goal now is to find a way to fulfill them.

STARTERS NOT RETURNING

None.

OTHERS NOT RETURNING

F - TODD HENDLEY (6-9, 2.2 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 0.3 apg, 6.9 mpg, .565 FG, .333 3PT, .727 FT). The freshman forward from Sanford, N.C., had hoped to see more action at power forward a year ago, and the opportunity was there with Vytas Danelius hurt off and on all season. But Hendley played in only 16 games and did not contribute as much as fellow freshman Kyle Visser.

At 6-9, Hendley was in between sizes to be a real power forward and wasn't as quick as Jamaal Levy or Trent Strickland to get much time at small forward. There just didn't seem a place for him to earn significant minutes.

So Hendley opted to transfer to UNC Wilmington after last season, making him the only scholarship player not returning to the Deacon roster this season.

PROJECTED STARTERS

PG - CHRIS PAUL (6-0, 168 lbs., SO, #3, 14.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 5.9 apg, 2.7 spg, 33.6 mpg, .496 FG, .465 3PT, .843 FT, West Forsyth HS/Lewisville, N.C.). You've heard this story before: A talented point guard has an excellent freshman season, and comes back the next year to take his team to unprecedented heights. The last time it was told was by Texas sensation T.J. Ford, who parlayed those two seasons under Longhorn coach Rick Barnes into national accolades and a No. 8 selection in the NBA draft by the Milwaukee Bucks.

Is Wake Forest's Chris Paul the next guy to take that career path?

Paul, Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook's preseason national player of the year, showed last year that he has the ability to guide his team with his passing skills, his defensive ability and his knack for hitting critical outside shots. He stepped into the starting lineup immediately, thanks in part to an emergency appendectomy on former starting point guard Taron Downey just before the season started. Paul helped maintain the reigning ACC regular-champion Deacons' status as a national power, despite the loss of first-round draft pick Josh Howard. He led the ACC in steals, was third in assists and made a remarkable 46.5 of his infrequent three-point attempts (he did not qualify for the ACC statistics).

There were some missteps along the way that were out of Paul's control: injuries to Wake's best inside player and an overall inexperience on a team that had no scholarship seniors.

But this season the Deacons will sprint as far as Paul's quickness and energy will take them. The reigning ACC Rookie of the Year-he edged out Duke's one-and-done freshman Luol Deng by a few votes-spent the summer working on his game, along with teammate Justin Gray, with the USA World Championship for Young Men Qualifying team that won the Americas qualifying tournament in Canada.

And when he wasn't on the court, Paul was in the weight room, working on what Prosser saw as Paul's biggest deficiency.

"The Sunday after we lost to St. Joe's, he called me at home and thanked me for recruiting him," Prosser said. "And I said, 'Thanks for coming.' I asked him what he learned and one of the things he said he learned was the physicality of Jameer Nelson and Tyrone Barley. I believe he has worked harder in the weight room [during the summer].

"There's nothing like getting smacked. Seeing how physical and strong Nelson and Barley were did wake him up."

Paul is an unassuming sort, someone looking forward to the challenges of leading his team to a higher level of competition. Just imagine what he could be like if, as Prosser expects, he improves as much as Georgia Tech's Jarrett Jack did between his freshman and sophomore seasons.

"I think this season is definitely going to be one to remember," Paul said. "I am really excited. Freshman year was so much fun, I can't really imagine how much fun this coming year is going to be, knowing that we have everyone back."

Paul spent his time with the qualifying team working on his mid-range jumper and trying to hone his leadership skills. He knows he will have three seniors to rely on in that department, but he also knows that on the court, leadership begins at the point.

"Whether people realize it or not, everything starts with the point guard, if it is starting the offense or getting everyone excited about playing defense," Paul said. "So one thing I definitely tried to work on was being a complete team leader."

Paul frequently asks his teammates and coaches for help in how to be a better leader, which, to them, is another sign that the young player from nearby Lewisville is maturing as a basketball player.

"He is always asking the coach and all the players what he needs to do to get better and make the team better," teammate Jamaal Levy said. "He doesn't care about all the magazines and what they say about him. He is here to be competitive and work hard, and when you do that the recognition will come your way."

Certainly, Blue Ribbon isn't the only publication that is predicting big things for Paul. He and N.C. State's Julius Hodge and North Carolina's Rashad McCants are all guards who have made numerous preseason All-America lists. But Prosser has seen no ill effects of the positive press.

"He comes from excellent stock, and his family have done an absolutely wonderful job of grounding him," the coach said. "I have no problem grounding him either. He's aware of that, too.

"It would be less than natural if [all the press] didn't have some effect, but if anybody will be able to handle it, he will."

So what are the chances that Paul will do like Ford and head for the NBA's riches after his sophomore season? It's question that Paul is well prepared to answer.

"I don't plan on it," Paul said in the summer. "People ask that all the time. I don't think there is anything like college basketball, especially in the ACC. I don't plan on it.

"Besides, I don't how I could do it. I keep hearing nobody wants to draft me anyway."

SG - TARON DOWNEY (6-2, 180 lbs., SR, #4, 10.2 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.9 apg, 1.2 spg, 28.9 mpg, .492 FG, .429 3PT, .789 FT, Fork Union Military Academy/Oxford, N.C.). It would have been easy for Downey go get down in the dumps last season. After all, in comes this hotshot freshman point guard and steps right into the role Downey had been playing effectively for two years. Paul started every game at the point, just as Downey had the year before. But Prosser found a way to get Downey on the floor more-after the player recovered from an emergency appendectomy immediately after the Deacons' final exhibition game-by going to a three-guard rotation as several inside players battled with injuries and confidence issues. Downey made the most of his opportunity, finishing as one of five Wake players with a double-digit scoring average. He was also sixth in the ACC in three-point shooting percentage.

But what impressed Prosser the most about Downey was the way he handled Paul's arrival and the way Downey continued to contribute.

"He is as good a kid as I have ever coached," Prosser said. "He really wants his senior year to be special. I think he worked very hard in the summer to make sure this team will bear his stamp. He takes a lot of pride in that."

Downey is still likely to be the guy who comes off the floor when the Deacons use a bigger lineup with Eric Williams at center, Vytas Danelius at power forward and Jamaal Levy at small forward.

SG - JUSTIN GRAY (6-2, 185 lbs., JR, #1, 17.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.1 spg, 30.2 mpg, .410 FT, .379 3PT, .795 FT, Oak Hill Academy/Charlotte, N.C.). No one on the roster works harder to be good than Gray, whose toughness was undisputed as a freshman when he played with a broken jaw. Last year, Gray quickly emerged as one of the top shooting guards in the country, leading the Deacons with his 19.4 point scoring average. He was consistent from the three-point line in percentage and in frequency: he made more than 41 percent of his long-range shots and averaged more than three of them per game, which ranked second in the ACC.

Gray was rewarded when he became the first Wake Forest sophomore since Duncan to earn first-team All-ACC honors.

But how will he top that career-making season? Gray spent the off-season spending time with Paul and Williams. Their families all got together at the beginning of the summer to go on a cruise to the Bahamas. Then all three players were invited to try out for the USA World Championship for Young Men qualifying team. He and Paul made the team, and joined with North Carolina's Sean May to help lead Team USA to the gold medal in the qualifying tournament.

Then, just for kicks, Paul and Gray worked as counselors at both the Nike Camp and the Michael Jordan camp in California.

So now, Gray is ready to follow up his breakout season by doing whatever necessary to make the team better.

"I feel good about what happened with me last year," Gray said. "But I am not where I want to be in my dreams. The awards are great, and I appreciate them, but I want to go to the Final Four, I want to win a national championship."

To get there, the Deacons will need consistent scoring from Gray from the outside. But they will also need for Gray to make big strides on defense, where he struggled at times last season, just like the rest of the team.

"If I have to score points, then I will score points," Gray said. "If I have to sit back and play defense, then I will play defense, if it will get us a game or two further in the NCAA Tournament.

"But I really don't think I have to do anything on the offensive end, but there are a lot of little things that I can do to get a deflection, something that can help lead to a steal and a basket."

SF - JAMAAL LEVY (6-9, 180 lbs., SR, #10, 10. 3 ppg, , 8.4 rpg, 1.5 apg, 1.2 spg, 30.9 mpg, .538 FG, .303 3PT, .604 FT, Berkshire Academy/Panama City, Panama). For three years, Levy has been called one of the ACC's most underrated players. Maybe he will finally shed that label as he heads into his final season of competition, ready to show off his invaluable versatility.

"I wouldn't trade him for any player in the country," Paul said of his teammate. "He is our most versatile player. He can play any position; he can guard anybody. You know every night you know you are going to get the same intensity."

Levy has always been an excellent defensive player and rebounder. A year ago he led the team in rebounding, despite frequently being out-sized and out-muscled while playing the power forward position instead of his more natural wing-forward spot.

He's hoping that the return of senior Vytas Danelius' health and confidence will allow Danelius to play the power position on a more regular basis and allow Levy the opportunity to show off his talents in his natural spots.

"I would rather play small forward," Levy said during the summer. "It's a big difference playing the four-spot in our three-guard lineup. Coach wanted us to be a great rebounding team. Sometimes we did pretty well, and sometimes we didn't. I don't think it is about height and weight. We try to work on rebounding drills everyday. It think it would help if we get Chris Ellis and Vytas back in the lineup, playing the four-spot."

Levy worked on improving his strength in the off-season, adding 10 pounds to his skinny frame.

"I haven't gained 20 or 30 pounds like some people have in their careers," Levy said. ""But I am way stronger. I can tell when we max out. I might not be the strongest guy on the team when I leave here, but I try to combine my strength and quickness."

Now, Levy needs to use that improved strength to become more aggressive offensively, so he can finish off his career as a more productive scorer. That, as much as anything, will get rid of that underrated label rather quickly.

C - ERIC WILLIAMS (6-9, 275 lbs., JR, #31, 12. 4 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 0.7 bspg, 0.8 spg, 24.9 mpg, .546 FG, .656 FT, Wake Forest-Rolesville HS/Wake Forest, N.C.). Williams is possibly one of the nicest kids in college basketball. Perhaps a little too nice for Prosser, who wants his junior center to be more of a physical presence inside, without committing silly fouls that often keep him on the bench for long periods of time.

Williams can be a powerful rebounder and scorer in the paint.

"This is a huge year for Eric," Prosser said. "He has had so many flashes of brilliance, but I think the biggest challenge for him is that he needs to become an absolute, 100-percent dependable, go-to guy and not a question mark.

"He aims to please at a very high level. OK, that's nice, but he's got to become a man. We need to have a post presence. Not just once in a while, but every single time."

Williams joined Paul and Gray during the tryouts for the 20-under team, but was the last player cut. His performance was hampered somewhat by persistent flu-like symptoms that forced him to miss several practices. But Prosser expects Williams to benefit from that experience, if only because Team USA coach Kelvin Sampson has a reputation for teaching tough, hard-nosed defense and strong rebounding.

Because the Deacons need to improve in both those areas, Prosser hopes Williams retains what he learned over the summer.

KEY RESERVES

F - VYTAS DANELIUS (6-9, 228 lbs., SR, #13, 5.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 0.4 apg, 0.4 bspg, 0.5 spg, 17.4 mpg, .359 FT, .370 3PT, .644 FT, Indianapolis Park Tudor HS/Kaunas, Lithuania). It wasn't just that Danelius got hurt last year. He also lost his confidence, Prosser thinks. From the first day of practice, when Danelius first felt the tendinitis in his knee, his confidence spiraled downward, perhaps as he tried to do more than his abilities and his health would allow on a team that had a young backcourt and was trying to find its way without Josh Howard.

So the guy who as a sophomore was a great complementary player to Howard, with his strong rebounding, his long-range shooting and his physical presence inside, saw all of his numbers drop way off as a junior. His scoring was cut in half, from 12.3 points a game to 5.9. His rebounding numbers fell almost as much, from 7.5 to 4.4 per game. His downfall was one of the reasons that rebounding went from one of Wake's biggest strengths to one of its biggest weaknesses.

But everyone from Prosser to Paul thinks Danelius will come back strong. Check that.

"I don't think, I know Vytas is going to be better," Paul said. "I wish people really knew how good Vytas is as a player. This is his last shot at it.

"After the loss to St. Joe's, we had a couple of days off then got back into the gym. I am not sure Vytas took any days off. I am pretty sure he got right back in the gym and started working immediately to get better."

Prosser has seen the same kind of commitment to erase last year's bad memories. Danelius represented his native Lithuania this summer in the Global Games in Dallas, scoring 24 points and grabbing eight rebounds against China before suffering a shoulder injury that hampered him the rest of the tournament. That injury should be healed by the time the Deacon open the season in the Preseason NIT.

"Vytas was very, very, very disappointed in how he played last year," Prosser said. "He understands certainly that this is his last go-around. He does not want people to remember him as a Wake player by his junior year. He wants to go out on a much more positive note. He is very cognizant of what happened last year. He is light years ahead of where he was this time last year. How that manifests itself in the season is yet to come.

"But I know his self-esteem is better. He is walking much taller. He just looks like a totally different guy."

F - CHRIS ELLIS (6-9, 265 lbs., JR, #0, 1.4 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 0.3 apg, 6.5 mpg, .455 FG, 1.000 FT, Marietta HS/Marietta, Ga.). Things started going badly for Ellis in the first practice of the season, and never got much better. He broke his foot in that first outing of the season, and never really got to contribute much. He had surgery to repair the broken bone, but was out until late December.

The foot never completely healed, and Ellis was used sparingly when he returned.

Prosser considered red-shirting Ellis, but had little option for doing that because Wake desperately needed some rebounding muscle. But he was not nearly the contributor he was as a freshman, when he averaged 2.8 points and 2.5 rebounds in 12.8 minutes per game.

Ellis, the son of former NBA star Dale Ellis, had a second surgery in the off-season to help the bone in his foot heal. When healthy, he has plenty of muscle to use on defense and in rebounding. This year, he just hopes to be fit enough to use it.

G - JEREMY INGRAM (6-3, 185 lbs., SO, #2, 1.6 ppg, 0.8 rpg, 0.7 apg, 0.7 spg, 3.0 mpg, .333 FG, .429 3PT, Kinston HS/Kinston, N.C.). As a freshman, Ingram wowed his teammates with his outstanding athleticism and dunking ability-in practice. That's because the freshman guard hardly ever got onto the floor, despite being one of the most athletic players on the roster.

A cousin of former Wake Forest standout Craig Dawson, Ingram comes from a basketball family. But Prosser is still looking for him to develop some touch on his jump shot before he gets more playing time in what will surely be one of the most dynamic backcourts in the nation.

G - RICHARD JOYCE (6-5, 200 lbs., JR, #23, 3.4 ppg, 0.8 rpg, 0.5 apg, 0.5 spg, 5.5 mpg, .429 FG, .200 3PT, .875 FT, Oak Hill Academy/Mount Airy, NC). An athletic player with good leaping ability, Joyce has played sparingly in his two years at Wake Forest, something that isn't likely to change this year as part of one of the nation's deepest and most productive backcourts.

Joyce, who originally committed to play for former Wake coach Dave Odom then recommitted when Prosser succeeded Odom, played in only eight games all year and did not appear in any of the team's final 14 games.

But he does have a solid outside shooting touch and could contribute more scoring from the perimeter.

F - TRENT STRICKLAND (6-5, 200 lbs., JR, #33, 6.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 0.7 apg, 0.5 spg, 17.6 mpg, .482 FG, .382 3PT, .545 FT, Hargrave Military Academy/East Flat Rock, N.C.). In his first two years on campus, the hard-working Strickland has reminded some Wake observers as a young version of Josh Howard, a versatile wing who can come in immediately and make an impact with his athletic ability.

However, by this point in his college career, Howard had already established himself as a proven player.

Strickland, used as a part-time starter and top player off the bench, hasn't reached that status just yet, despite his crowd-pleasing ability to make thunderous dunks from any of the three guard spots. He made six starts last year, including all three NCAA Tournament games.

Off the bench, Strickland can provide instant offense, something the high-scoring Deacons don't necessarily need. He can be a good shooter at times, but he tends to take too many ill-advised jumpers. Defensively, Strickland is a good enough athlete to cover just about any player with the ball. However, he has yet to learn that the best defense is played preventatively, when his man doesn't have the ball. He still tends to get beat too much in those situations, giving up backdoor lay-ups.

But Strickland also has to prove that he has matured into his role. Last year, he was left home from a road trip to Clemson after he got mad at practice and walked off the court. Things were smoothed over, but Strickland has allowed his emotions to get the best of him at times.

For Strickland to become a bigger contributor this year-something he is fully capable of-Prosser wants him to stop thinking about scoring points and do all the little things that Howard was so good at: rebounding, defense, running the floor.

Whether he can improve on those things in his third season will determine how much he will be on the floor.

C - KYLE VISSER (6-11, 224 lbs., SO, #55, 4.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 0.6 bspg, 0.5 spg, 12.4 mpg, .538 FG, .522 FT, Forest Hills HS/Grand Rapids. Mich.). No one really knew what to expect when Visser arrived as a 17-year-old freshman last fall. But he turned into one of the biggest freshman surprises in the ACC last year, especially when he nudged veteran Eric Williams out of Wake starting lineup for seven games at mid-season.

Now that he has some experience and a little more strength, Visser will be counted on to help improve Wake's rebounding and inside play. He's a good fit for the Deacon offense because of his ability to get up and down the court and his soft shooting touch.

Because Prosser expects so much out of Williams this year, Visser isn't likely to return to the starting lineup just yet, but he will continue to be a productive and valuable member of the frontcourt.

OTHER RETURNEES

None.

NEWCOMERS

F - CAMERON STANLEY (6-7, 200, FR, #11, 21.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 5.0 apg, 2.0 apg in 2002-03, Millbrook HS/Raleigh, N.C.). Prosser continued his domination of in-state recruiting by nabbing Stanley, his only recruit this season, from Raleigh. The Wake Forest coaches identified Stanley early in the process and had a commitment from him by the fall of his junior year. Stanley joins Paul, Gray, Williams, Strickland and Ingram as North Carolina natives on the roster, giving the Deacons more in-state products than North Carolina, Duke and N.C. State have.

Stanley committed so early so he could sit back and enjoy his senior year.

Little did he know that he would also have to sit out most of his final season at Millbrook. While playing in a tournament in South Carolina in January, Stanley suffered a torn ACL and did not play the rest of the way. It was a significant injury that required extensive surgery, and Stanley probably won't be completely recovered by the time the season begins.

Prosser still expects his only freshman to contribute, though, especially on defense and in rebounding, two of the areas where last year's team was deficient.

Stanley, who has the ability to play inside and outside, played only eight games in his senior year, averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds. Stanley was working on making his three-point shooting more consistent during his senior year and he will have to get better at handling the ball and in his passing skills if he wants to contribute on the Wake perimeter, which is deep and talented. He also needs to improve his strength, which is why he spent as much of his rehabilitation time getting stronger in his upper body as he did working on his leg muscles.

"An ACL is a catastrophic injury," Prosser said. "My son had that, then the next year he fractured the kneecap on the same knee. He was never really able to play after that. The most important thing from Cameron-and we have the best trainer in the country in Greg Collins-is follow doctors' orders and do what he can to get healthy to be able to contribute.

"I think he can make his most impact immediately on the defensive end of the floor. He is a long kid, a strong kid. It's hard for freshmen defensively. Most importantly, he just has to get healthy. He can improve his hands a little bit, which is tough for long, tall kids."

The Deacons certainly need the help.

QUESTIONS

Defense? Two years ago, the Deacons were ranked 11th in the nation in defensive field-goal percentage. Last year, had Miami and Virginia Tech already been in the league, the Deacons would have been 11th in the ACC. Prosser has gotten his message across to his players: the defense needs to improve or there's no chance at advancing to the Final Four.

Rebounding? Similarly, the Deacons were a terrific rebounding team two years ago, but that dropped off last year with injuries to Vytas Danelius and Chris Ellis and the departure of Josh Howard. It should improve this year if Danelius and Ellis return healthy and confident.

Expectations? Two years ago, the Deacons were picked to finish seventh in the league and wound up winning the ACC regular-season championship for the first time since 1962. Prosser's job this year is to let his team know that outside expectations can work the other way too: he doesn't want this talented, deep team to be remembered as a disappointment.

ANSWERS

Chris Paul! Blue Ribbon's preseason national player of the year has all the tools and abilities to take the Demon Deacons some place they haven't been since Billy Packer was a Wake Forest guard: the Final Four.

Versatility! The Deacons can go small with a deadly three-guard lineup with Levy at power forward, or they can go big with Williams, Danelius and Levy in the frontcourt, with help from Ellis, Visser and Strickland, which is mostly how the Deacons were the top rebounding and one of the top defensive teams in the country two years ago.

Prosser! The glib and urbane coach has cobbled together a program with players that aren't likely to leave for the NBA, creating a group with good chemistry, developing talent and a drive to surpass the other three schools in North Carolina that have all won national championships.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: A+
BENCH/DEPTH: A
FRONTCOURT: A-
INTANGIBLES: A+

It's not very often that Wake Forest, a small Baptist-affiliated school in the heart of what was once North Carolina's thriving tobacco business, is the most talked about basketball team in the country. There were a few years there when Tim Duncan was in Dave Odom's program the Deacons were a national story, especially after winning back-to-back ACC Tournament championships.

But it has been 42 years since the Deacons have made a big splash in the NCAA Tournament. That 1962 team's claim to fame was beating UCLA in the consolation game, the Bruins last loss in the NCAA Tournament until 1974.

Prosser has put together a special blend of talent and experience, and he knows it. Perhaps that's why he sounded so giddy during the summer.

"I am really looking forward to coaching this team," Prosser said. "I think the two things we have are talent and experience. I think we have a good blend of that. Everyone is healthy and mentally in the right place."

Now, it's up to the Deacons to finish the season in the right place: at the top of college basketball. Just like those other three ACC schools from North Carolina have done in the past.

For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the 384-page "Bible" of college basketball, Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com.

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