Reasons to doubt the Deacons

Originally Published: November 15, 2004
By Joe Lunardi | Special to ESPN Insider

ST. LOUIS -- It's with more than a bit of irony that the first bracket column of the 2004-05 season was written from a hotel in downtown St. Louis.

In less than five months, the college basketball world will gather at the Edward Jones Dome to crown another national champion. And if the so-called experts are to be believed, the list of teams that have a realistic chance to be playing here during that first weekend of April is a familiar one -- Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky, etc.

Throw in the rest of the upper division of the ACC, along with maybe Illinois and one or two others, and it would be hard not to find pretty much everyone's preseason No. 1 pick.

All of which leads me (being the contrarian that I am!) to ask a different question. Not who is going to the Final Four in St. Louis. But, more specific to the topic of brackets and seeding, who among the most obvious contenders is not?

It happens every year, you know. Some team (and many times more than one team) catches the fancy of the preseason analysts thanks to a star player or a hot coach or an unexpected NCAA Tournament run. We then project that team, not on the complete body of its work, but on the last thing we remember.

This time a year ago, that team was Michigan State. The Spartans were a rather surprising member of the Elite Eight in 2003. Many of those looking to anoint someone other than UConn as a Final Four "lock" settled on the pedigree and possibilities of MSU.

I saw the pedigree, but not the possibilities. I saw 13 losses, a 10-6 record in a so-so Big Ten and a team that was a No. 7 seed on merit in the 2003 NCAA bracket. And you know what? The 2004 Spartans became not a Final Four team but (hold your applause&) a No. 7 seed. This "good but not great" nucleus lost 25 games over two years and was no closer to the Final Four than about three dozen others.

Nothing against the Spartans, whose program I really respect, but facts are facts. The worst preseason mistake is also the most common. Namely, we forget to look at all of the evidence in making our evaluations.

So the original question is not "Who is this year's Connecticut?" Instead, we ponder "Who is this year's Michigan State?"

For consideration, I offer a team which has been anointed on these pages since late summer as the best in the land. Its top performer is also the preseason player of the year in many circles. And, while this team has a far greater upside than Michigan State did a year ago, making Wake Forest your national championship favorite flies in the face of some fairly compelling data.

To wit:

  • The Demon Deacons had double-digits losses (10) in 2003-04. This should be an instant red flag.
  • The Deacs were just a game over .500 (9-8) against their own conference last year. Figuring that they'd have to win at least five (and maybe six) straight games against ACC-level competition to cut down the nets this April, this seems like a pretty tall order.
  • The reason Wake was so inconsistent last season is that they were (are?) a poor defensive team. The Demon Deacons allowed 75.6 points per game entering the tournament, a figure that was better than only three other teams in the field -- Arizona, North Carolina and Florida A&M. Not counting A&M's victory over Lehigh in the opening round, those same three teams were a combined 1-3 in the tournament.
  • Wake could easily have made that record 1-4. The fourth-seeded Deacs reached the Sweet 16 but defeated a No. 12 and a No. 13 seed by just five points combined.
  • When the Deacons finally did go out, star guard Chris Paul was held to 2-for-6 shooting and zero rebounds in 33 minutes.

    The cynic in me wants to blurt out, "What in the name of Billy Packer is going on here?" The realist in me understands that a team with as much firepower as Wake Forest can absolutely win a national championship, particularly in this era in which top teams are merely "very good" (and rarely "great").

    I just have a hard time believing the hype of any team when the first sentence about them says, "If they can make a better commitment to defense&"

    The challenge for Wake Forest is to prove me wrong. The challenge of Bracketology 2004-05 is to once again be right.

    Welcome back!

    Joe Lunardi is the resident bracketologist for ESPN. His weekly Bracketology will resume in January.

    Joe Lunardi | email

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