On the surface, things could not be going much better for the sixth-ranked Wake Forest Demon Deacons.
They are 8-0, with a triple-overtime, road win over No. 9 North Carolina under their belts and a winning margin averaging 20.6 points. Their three-guard rotation of freshman point guard Chris Paul, sophomore Justin Gray and junior Taron Downey could be the best in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Sophomore center Eric Williams looks like the league's most improved player.
But injury concerns are creeping up on the Demon Deacons, starting with their top post player from last year's 25-6 team that won the regular-season ACC crown outright for the first time in 41 years.
Junior 6-foot-9 forward Vytas Danelius has yet to get healthy enough to resemble the second-team, All-ACC player he was last year. Dogged by a series of nagging injuries dating to the preseason, Danelius continues to deal with a high-ankle sprain that has sidelined him for the past two games. He did not play in the 119-114 victory over Carolina, and has started just two of the five games in which he has performed.
Gray and Paul also have been hit. In a rout over North Carolina A&T; on Tuesday, Gray aggravated a sprained left ankle he originally suffered nearly a month ago against Richmond, while Paul suffered a displaced tendon on the middle finger of his left hand.
The mounting bruises are putting a crimp in the development of coach Skip Prosser's rotation. The Demon Deacons essentially beat Carolina with a seven-man team. They need to heal soon, what with a two-month marathon marked by two or three conference games per week awaiting them.
"It's nobody's fault. But it becomes so much more of a problem when you're playing so many young guys," Prosser told the Winston-Salem Journal. "You would like after eight games to be in your eight-man rotation, with maybe nine or 10. But we have yet to be able to do that."
By the time Wake resumes its ACC schedule against visiting Clemson in eight days, it hopes to be at full strength. The Danelius injury looms as the most troubling. High ankle sprains are the kind of ailments that sometimes are extremely stubborn to heal.
If the Demon Deacons make another serious run at a league title, it's hard to envision them doing it without major help from Danelius, an inside-outside threat whose interior presence will be needed to keep Williams from wearing down against too many double-teams.
Last year, Danelius averaged 12.3 points and ranked fourth in the ACC with a 7.5-rebound average while shooting 51 percent, including 37.5 percent from three-point range. He was a preseason, first-team, all-conference choice, but has averaged only 8.0 points in 23.2 minutes per game, and has shot just 34.3 percent.
When North Carolina center Sean May went down in late December 2002 with a broken bone in his left foot, it essentially ended his season and had a devastating effect on the Tar Heels. Carolina sorely missed his inside strength, as it tumbled to a 6-10 finish in the conference and ultimately cost coach Matt Doherty his job.
May, 6-9 and 240 pounds, has reemerged to anchor the post for the 8-1 Tar Heels, who travel to No. 8 Kentucky tomorrow. May leads the team and ranks second in the ACC with 10.4 rebounds per game and is adding 16.1 points per game on 50.5 percent shooting.
On a team surrounded by proven scoring threats such as guard/forward Rashad McCants, point guard Raymond Felton and forward Jawad Williams, May is the kind of ingredient that will keep Carolina's resurgence moving forward.
"I really think that if [May] had not gotten hurt when he did [just before the conference schedule began], I might not be here right now," said Carolina coach Roy Williams, who replaced Doherty after leaving Kansas to rejoin his alma mater.
By the way, May sprained his left ankle during a 105-72 victory over Coastal Carolina on Dec. 30. He is questionable for the Kentucky game.
Pickett changes gears
Florida State senior guard Tim Pickett likes to talk, whether it's chatting up reporters or jawing at teammates or at opponents on the court. But he fulfilled an academic language requirement recently by changing gears.
Pickett learned how to speak sign language and spent part of a day with about 20 hearing-impaired students at a Tallahassee elementary school.
"It was one of the finest days I've ever had, just talking with them and giving them encouragement and signing autographs," Pickett said. "I want to speak to the people who can't hear and help them out. You never know who you're going to be working with when you get on to the next level in life. It touched me to know I could touch people."
UM's free-throw woes
When the Maryland Terrapins began to struggle with their free-throw shooting early in the season, coach Gary Williams chose not to talk about the problem too much, either publicly or in private with his team. He figured diligent practice would be a cure.
Ten games into the season, the Terps look no better at the foul line, where they rank last in the ACC with a .557 percentage. After a 10-for-18 showing in Sunday's 79-75 loss at Florida State, including a 5-for-11 performance in the second half, Williams decided to dispense with the silence.
"Our free-throw shooting continues to really hurt us. I might as well talk about it," he said. "I haven't talked about it, and it hasn't made a difference. Maybe if I talk about it, it will make a difference."