Suspension, seeding slight driving Deacons

Chris Paul is livid, humbled and ready to take on the entire field.

So, too, are the rest of his Wake Forest teammates and the coaching staff.

The sophomore point guard and possible national player of the year missed the Demon Deacons' ACC tournament quarterfinal loss to NC State after punching the Wolfpack's Julius Hodge below the belt in the teams' season finale in Raleigh a week ago Sunday.

The punch, for which Paul was not ejected, cost him a one-game suspension, and the loss to NC State without him pushed Wake Forest off the top seed line down to a No. 2.

That also cost the Demon Deacons a chance to play in Charlotte for the first two rounds (ACC rivals Duke and North Carolina, two of the four No. 1 seeds, are there). Wake landed in Cleveland, where the Deacons will try to advance to Albuquerque as the No. 2 seed to Washington's No. 1.

Those "slights" might be just what Wake Forest needed.

"We have as good a chance as anybody," head coach Skip Prosser said about winning the national title. "We were disappointed in the seed and we'll play with more of a chip on our shoulder. Maybe the selection committee has done us a favor."

And maybe they gave us one here at ESPN.com, too.

Scoff at us if you want. We know you're going to remind us (and notably this reporter) that we took a flyer on Stanford last season to win it all. The Cardinal were in the same bracket as Connecticut, which ended up as a No. 2 seed partly because of Emeka Okafor's back issues. We had picked the Huskies in the preseason and never should have shied away from the selection in March.

Well, we're in the same predicament again. We picked Wake Forest in the fall. This time, we're sticking with our guns in March. Here's why:

He's still the best point guard in the country, punch or no punch.

Paul beat NC State at the buzzer in the punch game with a daring floor-length drive to the basket. He has the ability to get anywhere on the court at any time. He can and will make big shots.

Paul isn't any less of a player since that punch. If anything, he might be better – because of what it did to his mind-set for the NCAA Tournament.

"He's quite remorseful and contrite about what happened," Prosser said. "He has apologized profusely. He has told his teammates that he won't let them down again. I don't know how this would play out but it will certainly be part of his motivation."

Paul played big in some of Wake Forest's toughest games. He scored 23 points, dished out six assists and had five steals in the win over Duke. He scored 23 points, grabbed seven boards and had five assists to win at New Mexico in December. He scored 26 points and made all nine of his free throws to help beat North Carolina in the teams' only meeting.

Yes, he struggled against Illinois (like the rest of the Deacons), shooting just 4-of-11 for 10 points, but more on that game later.

On Friday, Paul could only sit and watch his teammates lose. He was sharply dressed but couldn't do anything more than cheer. The pain, apparently, lingers.

"None of that was easy," Prosser said. "He was very, very emotional before and after the game. This was self-inflicted. He didn't feel he was wronged. He made the decision and he realized he made a mistake. Without question he was wrong. You can't defend what he did, but he's fundamentally a good kid and should be the face of college basketball. He felt like he let a lot of people down because he believes so much in this team."

The resume
Wake Forest's 26 overall wins were the most in school history. The 13 ACC wins tied a school record.

Wake Forest went 10-4 against NCAA Tournament teams this season and won seven of eight games that were decided by five points or less.

The squad, led by Paul, Justin Gray, Taron Downey, Eric Williams, Vytas Danelius, Jamaal Levy and Trent Strickland, is made up of a collection of players who can score from all over the court. This team's offense is rarely a concern.

"The committee told us to go out and play teams on the road and we did that," Prosser said of going to New Mexico and Temple, in addition to playing at Illinois in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Deacons also played George Washington, Providence and Arizona in the Preseason NIT, along with Texas and Richmond.

"We're the only team to beat New Mexico at New Mexico this season and they had Danny Granger at the time," Prosser said of the Lobos, who were missing Granger for three of their six losses. "We didn't have to play in the Preseason NIT but we asked into it (replacing Clemson). We've won 10 of our last 12 games. The only two losses were at Duke and to NC State without Chris. When we had him at NC State, we were all but dead but we found a way to pull it out. I like this team's resolve."

The bracket
Wake Forest's Achilles' heel the past two seasons has been its defense.

It's simple: If the Demon Deacons guard like they did against Florida State (giving up 48 points), they have a shot. If they don't, like when they gave up 102 points at Georgia Tech, they won't get to the Final Four.

"Every game we lost, our opponent shot 50 percent," Prosser said. "We have to be a team that wins the rebounding and gets to the line a lot. We score a lot of points but that stat is as important as defensive field-goal percentage."

But look at the bracket. Wake Forest can win this region. Playing Chattanooga won't be easy nor will it be a cakewalk to get past Creighton or West Virginia in the second round. We know that.

But if the Demon Deacons get back to the Sweet 16, where they lost to Saint Joseph's last season, they could face Gonzaga, a team that isn't known to play much in-your-grill defense either.

If that game is a scorefest, the Deacons have a real shot to advance to the Elite Eight, where they could face Louisville, Georgia Tech or Washington – three more teams that like it up-tempo.

All of those teams have had their defensive breakdowns this season and could struggle to defend Paul, Gray and Williams. There's no reason to believe that Wake Forest couldn't beat any one of those teams in an Elite Eight matchup.

Wake's the only team in this group that played in Albuquerque this season. The Demon Deacons know how to play in the altitude and at the Pit. They would be extremely confident going into this game and not intimidated by the atmosphere of playing under those conditions.

If the Demon Deacons get to the Final Four and face Illinois in the national semifinal, you have a rematch against the team that delivered Wake its most disheartening loss this season.

How hard would it be for Illinois to beat the Deacons again? The Illini torched Wake Forest in that game in Champaign. That's the game that changed Wake Forest's season. Paul was told to be more aggressive after that game. Prosser also made it clear that the Demon Deacons can't just shoot themselves back into games. They've got to get Williams involved on as many possessions as possible.

A Wake Forest win over Illinois shouldn't be a reach. And if that were to occur, facing possibly North Carolina or Duke in the national final is once again familiar territory for Wake Forest. It's beat each team at least once. Why not again?

Two No. 2 seeds made it to the Final Four last year – Connecticut and Oklahoma State. Each thought it should have been a No. 1 seed.

The Huskies won the title. Wake Forest could, too.

Since 1979, a No. 2 seed has won the NCAA title six times – Connecticut (2004), Kentucky (1998), Duke (1991), Louisville (1986), Louisville (1980) and Michigan State (1979).

Do you buy this yet?

Wake Forest does.

"I sensed watching our guys [Sunday night at his house during the selection show] that there is a rededication and a refocus of where we want to be," Prosser said.

That place is St. Louis.

(Now just don't lose in the second round like Stanford!)

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.