One year ago today, Wake Forest lost its first game and #1 ranking in a game against Virginia Tech at the Joel. Previously 16-0, the Demon Deacons claimed victories over Baylor, BYU, UNC, Boston College and Clemson in route to their ascent up the rankings.
Coming into this season, the noticeable difference was glaring: no James Johnson and no Jeff Teague. Slotting in their spots were a pair of freshmen--a guard and a forward who were similarly under-recruited in high school. So at this point in the season, January 21, where does this year's team compare to a year ago?
So let's start with the schedule. Notorious for being a bad road team, Wake dispelled that reputation through January of last year. Sporting a pre-season tournament championship on a netural floor in Anaheim, a win snapping BYU's 53 game winning streak, a win in Chestnut Hill for the first time ever and a win over a then-top ten Clemson in front of a packed house. Strong road wins to say the least. And they had a signature home victory over eventual National Champions UNC.
Fast forward to this year and we're looking at a team with some additional quality wins, albeit home-heavy. Wake has a road win against Gonzaga, home OT victories over Richmond, Xavier and Maryland and a win in Chapel Hill over the Heels. There is also the N.C. State win in there, with the Pack recently beating Duke.
Let's compare. Wake's best wins overall were better at this time last year. But looking at the SOS, Wake's average opponent's KenPom ranking this year is 125. Although it's not as fair to use EOY #s, last year's squad's average KenPom at this point of the year was 152. Not a huge difference, but the Deacs appear to have played a tougher average schedule so far.
To dismiss the fact that Wake beat BYU, Clemson, UNC and BC would be foolish though. Last year's team was a buzzsaw through most of January.
A lot of that success came from the play of the aforementioned Teague and Johnson. Jeff Teague was unstoppable. He was playing like a player of the year candidate, And James Johnson played like a man the whole season. There's a reason these two were first round picks in the NBA Draft this year. Ish Smith was still recovering from injury and the team was trying to figure out their identity with him back in the lineup. Al-Farouq Aminu gave the Deacs a great freshman presence as well.
This year's team at first glance is obviously not a candidate for the best team in the country. But what is interesting is that the identity by the numbers is almost the same. Last year, Teague and Johnson combined to take 39% of the shots and had 41% of the points. This year, strangely enough, Wake's two leading scorers (also a guard and a forward), Ishmael Smith and Aminu, take a whopping 42% of the shots and add 39.4% of the points.
The third leading scorer on last year's team--Aminu with 12.9 ppg. This year? Another freshman, C.J. Harris with 11.9 ppg. So what we're seeing are two teams with three players in double figures. Last year, two forwards and a guard. This year, two guards and a forward.
Wake got where they were last year with a high FG% and strong post play. Johnson dominated down low and Chas McFarland played extremely well at times. Not to mention that Aminu gave Wake another element with his size. This year, the strength has been focused more on the perimeter. Although Aminu is cemented at the four spot, the majority of the contributions have come from Smith, Harris, L.D. Williams and freshman Ari Stewart on the perimeter.
The addition of Harris and Stewart have given the Deacs an element that they didn't have last year--threat from the outside. Jeff Teague was able to hit open shots, but his greatest gift was creating with the ball in his hands. When Smith drove the lane looking to kick, there was no one to hit that shot. Once teams realized that Wake had to play inside, they started zoning and the results were not exactly stellar.
So far this season, zone is not nearly as big a problem. Stewart and Harris have been hitting those looks and making teams pay for leaving them open in the zone. Gary Clark has been hitting when he is getting opportunities too. The more this keeps up, the easier it will be for the bigs (who have struggled this year) to get favorable one-on-one matchups that they can exploit. This will only help Wake more if the bigs are able to recognize when they are getting doubled and kick the ball back out to the wings.
Another thing that has improved over last year has been the defensive effort. One thing that did get lost in the fold last year was how well the defense played through the first 16+ games, but this year's team has taken it one step further. At year's end, Wake was 23rd in defensive efficiency, 30th in defensive eFG%, 18th in defensive 3PT% and 56th in 2PT%. This year: 19th in defensive efficiency, 5th in eFG%, 2nd in defensive 3PT% and 27th in 2PT%.
The defensive effort has shown to be a big part of Wake's success this year. Early on, it was very hard to figure out just where the scoring was going to come from. Wake has seniors in L.D. Williams and Ish Smith, but neither had been the go-to guy coming into this season. AFA's biggest strength was to clean up the trash and get the down and dirty buckets and fast break opportunities. Who was going to step up in the middle?
It took awhile for the team to settle in (and they still are getting there). Ish Smith has become The Man for Wake and a #1 option. Farouq has stayed in his role as the garbage man. L.D.'s role is the same. We still don't know what is going on in the middle. But the biggest surprise has been Stewart and Harris's contributions. Their emergence as offensive options gives the Deacs a lot more flexibility offensively and there has been a real shift in the success of the half court offense.
Wake lost a lot when they lost Teague and Johnson. There's no denying that. And they probably won't shoot up the rankings like they did last year. But right now, the eye test is telling me that this year's team is a good bet to go deeper in the NCAA Tournament.