Demon Deacons still have plenty of talent on hand

August, 6, 2009
The pounding Cleveland State put on Wake Forest in March was hard to take for the Demon Deacons faithful.

Wake was gone in the first round of the NCAA tournament, well short of the expectations of its fans and the national media (especially this reporter, who had enough faith to place the Deacs in his Final Four -- yikes!).

The news didn't get a whole lot better in the following weeks and months.

James Johnson was a likely lock to declare for the draft. He did. Sophomore classmate Jeff Teague, the Demon Deacons' leading scorer, sweated out the decision into June. But he went pro, too.

Before that, trusted assistant Pat Kelsey had split to return to his alma mater, joining Chris Mack's new staff at Xavier. Later in the summer, Mike Muse, who had been bumped up to assistant coach and then dropped back down to director of basketball operations, decided to leave the staff in late July. Muse has carried the weight of being the one who discovered his mentor, former Wake coach Skip Prosser, on the floor of his office after collapsing from a heart attack.

These defections would seem to indicate a cloud forming over Wake. But that's not exactly true. As the start of school creeps closer, there is a renewed optimism within the program that reports of Wake's demise are hardly the case. In fact, Wake head coach Dino Gaudio went as far as to say it's been "a great summer" in Winston-Salem.

For one, Gaudio settled the staff. Alongside associate head coach Jeff Battle will be Dave Wojcik, who arrives from Tulsa and played high school basketball for Gaudio, and Rusty LaRue, a former sharpshooter at Wake.

The return of Al-Farouq Aminu, who arguably would have been a lottery lock if he had come out after last season, gives the Demon Deacons a lock on the offensive end at wing. Aminu worked the Nike skills camp circuit and spent time in the spring working on his 3-point shooting with Ken Potosnak, who is now an assistant at Auburn but was then between jobs.

The results, according to fellow soph Ty Walker, are noticeable.

"He has improved his 3-point shooting so much," Walker said.

Aminu had plenty of room to improve. He shot a mere 17.9 percent from beyond the arc last season, making just seven of 39. Aminu was supposed to try out for the Under-19 World Championship team in Colorado Springs but declined in the final days before the event.

"We have one of the most talented young wings in the entire country in Al-Farouq," Gaudio said. "He should be a top-5 pick next year."

The question will be whether senior guard Ishmael Smith can be a scoring playmaker like Teague and whether classmate L.D. Williams can deliver as well. The Deacons' post play, in terms of depth and talent, should match up with that of any ACC team, save North Carolina.

Senior Chas McFarland is a highly productive post player. Redshirt senior David Weaver can serve in a purposeful role as a rebounder and defender. And remember, the Deacons still bring back the other two members of the highly touted freshman class from a year ago, big men Walker and Tony Woods.

"I can replace James' offensive ability on a consistent basis," said Walker, who averaged 0.9 points a game last season. Johnson averaged 15 points a game.

"James and Jeff were major assets, but I think we can be as good as we were with them," Walker said. "I don't feel any added pressure now. I understand now what it is to become a leader."

North Carolina and Duke will be picked 1-2 in the ACC. The next tier is likely Maryland and Boston College. Wake Forest could certainly be in that mix, with Clemson, Florida State and Miami on its heels. Gaudio isn't shying away from a challenging schedule, either. The Deacs play at Gonzaga (not in Spokane Arena, but at the Kennel -- bravo, Gaudio), go to Purdue in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, and take on A-10 title contenders Xavier and Richmond.

The schedule will test this squad, and by conference season, Gaudio will know whether the Deacons can survive the departures of Teague and Johnson.

"The thing that excites me is that three years ago we were 241st [nationally] in defense; we were 58 two seasons ago and 25th last season," Gaudio said. "We had a positive rebounding differential, too. We're a good rebounding team. We've got a chance to be good."

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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