No. 1 in league, but not respect, Wake enters stretch March mad


GREENSBORO, N.C. - Wake Forest, the best team in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season, has all the components for making a long run in March.

In senior forward Josh Howard, the Demon Deacons have a national Player of the Year candidate. Freshman guard Justin Gray exhibits the kind of swagger and poise a team needs in hostile NCAA tournament environs. And sophomore forward Vytas Danelius has made a reputation of playing big in big games.

The main ingredient Wake Forest is missing is hype.

That could be why the top-seeded Demon Deacons, despite finishing two games ahead of Maryland and Duke, are not considered a prohibitive favorite to win the 50th ACC tournament that began last night at the Greensboro Coliseum. Wake Forest is ranked ninth in the country, but has been virtually unseen outside the ACC.

That happens when you're picked to finish sixth in the nine-team league, as the Demon Deacons were before winding up with the school's first regular-season championship in 41 years. That happens when seven of the nine players in coach Skip Prosser's rotation are either freshmen or sophomores.

But a lack of experience shouldn't be looked upon as Wake Forest's weakness. As the precocious Gray said yesterday, 'There's no freshmen or anything anymore. That label's gone."

Yet even Prosser and his staff weren't sure what to expect from the Demon Deacons this season. After beating Yale and Temple in Winston-Salem, Wake Forest ventured out to play Wisconsin in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. The Demon Deacons came home from Madison with a 90-80 victory and bubbling with confidence.

"I think Wisconsin was a bit of a watershed," Prosser said earlier this week, as Wake Forest prepared for today's ACC tournament noon quarterfinal against Florida State, which beat Clemson in last night's play-in game, 72-61.

"First time away from home. The sophomores were complementary players last year and, of course, the freshmen were still in high school. Josh Howard played with incredible courage that night and I think it had a ripple effect on his teammates."

The ripple created by Howard's performance against the Badgers - 31 points and nine rebounds - turned into a wave that has alternately been ridden by several of his teammates. It led to Wake Forest finishing the regular season with a 23-4 record that included wins in 11 of its last 12 ACC games.

Even the potential bumps turned into boosts.

Gray was sidelined a month after breaking his jaw in a nasty collision with Duke's Dahntay Jones, but sophomore Jamaal Levy stepped in. The Demon Deacons won six of the eight games Gray missed. He returned for a 94-80 double-overtime win against Duke and scored 18 points off the bench.

"I come out, and other people stepped in and played good," said Gray, who has averaged 14 points in the past eight games as a reserve. "In that Duke game, it showed. Everybody was fouling out, even the waterboy. Everybody was stepping up and making plays. That is what a good basketball team is about."

Thinking he might have to do it alone this season, Howard has gotten help inside from Danelius. The 20-year-old Lithuanian nearly doubled his scoring (from 6.6 points as a freshman to 13 a game this season). Howard and Danelius have helped Wake Forest become the nation's best rebounding team.

Prosser, whose coaching success at Wake Forest is reminiscent of what he did at both Loyola and later at Xavier, is as low-key about his team's success as he was about its uncertainties back when practice began. Those who thought the Demon Deacons were in a rebuilding mode had not talked to Prosser.

"When you start practice in October, you're just trying to make the team in front of you the best team you can be," said Prosser. "We told the kids, somehow, some way, we're going to figure out a way to be good. We never ever have really used rebuilding. It's something we've never done. ... It's worked out."

Assistant coach Dino Gaudio, who went to work for Prosser at Xavier after being fired as head coach at Loyola in 2000, says the team's surprising season was a byproduct of where it was picked in the preseason. It isn't the first time Gaudio has seen Prosser use an outside source to motivate his players.

"Skip does a great job in always trying to find a cause, or a theme for the season," Gaudio said. "Each game, he's found something. Right now, he's talking about how important it would be for us to win the ACC."

But it's more than that. It's silencing any doubters that might be left.

"We want to continue to get respect, and continue to win championships," Howard said.

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