This season has been quite a mystery for Wake Forest. After big wins at BYU and Clemson and at home against North Carolina and Duke, the Demon Deacons started to slide. This slide included ugly losses to Georgia Tech, N.C. State and Miami, all teams in the lower half of the conference. However, just when things started to look grim, Dino Gaudio's squad rebounded to win six of their final seven games in the regular season. Then came the ACC tournament...
Quite frankly, the ACC Tournament first round game against Maryland was a disaster. Wake missed an astounding 52 shots from the field and kept chucking it up from deep despite knowing that three point shooting is not one of their strengths. Whether our team dismisses this as "stage fright" (James Johnson) or shooting in a dome (Jeff Teague) is not relevant at this point. What is relevant now is if the guys have really learned from these critical mistakes. While I, or anyone else, have no clue which Wake Forest team will show up in Miami, I remain cautiously optimistic that the Deacs can at least play up to their seeding in the NCAA Tournament. Here are a few things that I hope to see on the court in Miami:
1) Less than 13 shot attempts from behind the arc - The Deacs are tall and athletic and need to use this to their advantage. More likely than not, Wake is going to have the height advantage in the 3-5 spots against whomever they play with Chas, Farouq and JJ manning the interior. Add this to point guards Jeff Teague and Ish Smith, who would rather break down their defenders and get into the lane, and the Deacs should rarely take outside shots. It is obvious that Wake will see plenty of zone after the success that Maryland had with it, but that should not mean that we should shoot more shots from deep. Beating a zone is all about spacing and hopefully we will see James or Farouq flash to the high post or short corner in order to break down the zone. James Johnson is ideal for this task since he is a great passer in addition to having a nice mid-range game. In sum, while it would be nice for Jeff Teague to rekindle his hot hand from earlier in the season, three-point shooting is not necessary for the Deacons to win this postseason.
2) Rebound - This is another area where Wake has a chance to capitalize from its height. Since the Deacs are not a great shooting team, there are often opportunities for long rebounds that Aminu, Johnson, McFarland, Woods and Weaver need to collect. Moreover, the increased likelihood of seeing zone should lead to more offensive rebounds as well. When each defensive player does not have a specific player to box out and has an area instead, it is easier for the offense to crash the boards and get rebounds that may not be available against a man-to-man set. Aminu is especially active in the paint with his giant wingspan, so his ability to get garbage buckets will be a big factor for the Deacs this post season.
3) Run and gun - As we have seen throughout the past couple seasons, the Deacs are at their best when they get out in transition. Jeff Teague and Ish Smith are jet quick and finish well at the rim. Teague is better at going strong to the rim and finishing with contact, while Ish has perfected the floater and is a terrific passer on the break. James Johnson also handles the ball well for a player his size and can lead Wake in transition as well. Aminu still needs to work on his handles some, but is a great finisher when given the opportunity. He has a way of contorting his body awkwardly to finish shots that do not seem possible. Lastly, it is important to note that our half court offense has been less than spectacular over the past couple months so the more Wake can run, the better.
4) Jeff Teague - To reach their full potential, Wake needs Teague to play like he did in the opening months of the season. He has been nothing like that in the past eight games and Wake has suffered as a result. While hitting outside shots would be nice, Teague is most effective when he drives into the lane with reckless abandon and gets to the free throw line. In a recent Dan Collins article, Teague stated, "I was timid that last game. But it's not going to be like that. (Yesterday) in practice I was real aggressive... I'm going to continue to be like that the rest of the year." Hopefully we see that come to fruition over the weekend. While some Deacon fans suggest that inserting Ish Smith into the lineup early and often has adversely affected Teague, I do not think this is true at all. For example, Teague was able to score at least 30 against North Carolina and BYU with Ish playing 24 and 26 minutes, respectively. The fact is that defenses started keying in on Teague after his hot start and he has not adjusted particularly well to it. When Teague is forced into the shooting guard position, there needs to be more movement in the offense so that greater opportunities can be created for Teague to show off his dynamic skillset. Simply stated, a good Jeff Teague makes Wake Forest a great team, especially if that is combined with the recent play of James Johnson and Ish Smith.
5) Commitment to defense - This one needs less explanation. The Deacs need to play tough defense and hold their opponents to a low field goal percentage. Wake finished second in the ACC in FG% defense and first in the ACC in 3-point FG% defense. On days where the shots are not falling, a victory is still within our grasp if our team plays the defense they are capable of playing. This was not the case in 2005, but with players like L.D Williams, James Johnson and Farouq Aminu, Wake has the capability to shut down players that are match-up nightmares for other teams. The one weakness that Wake has on defense is that Jeff Teague and Ish Smith are not particulary tall or good defensive players, so teams with tall guards (i.e. Vasquez & Scheyer) often have their way with Wake's backcourt.
6) Stay out of foul trouble - I'm talking to you, James Johnson and Chas McFarland. Wake is a better team when the starting lineup can play for longer periods of time. Early fouls mess up Dino's rotation from the start and make it tough for the Deacs to recover.
While I have no idea what to expect Friday night against Cleveland State, I hope to see at least some of these wishes come true. I know our guys are hungry to get back on the floor and prove that the team that showed up against Maryland last Friday was not the real Wake Forest.