With Prosser still on their minds, Demon Deacons jump to strong start Print
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Thursday, 24 January 2008 12:45
NCAAB Headline News


 WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) - Some of the biggest cheers at Wake Forest still are reserved for Skip Prosser.
They come before every home game, when a scoreboard video montage shows Demon Deacons basketball highlights. When his picture appears, the crowd goes wild.
``And he deserves it,'' point guard Ishmael Smith said.
Midway through a season of change like no other, the late coach remains on everyone's mind. The Demon Deacons are playing with purpose, honoring Prosser with a surprisingly strong start in which they've already won nearly as many games as they did in all of 2006-07.
``Everyone wants this season for (Prosser),'' freshman James Johnson said. ``And we can do it. 'One team, one fight.' We'll be OK.''
Six months ago Saturday, everything changed on the close-knit Wake Forest campus. The beloved coach died of an apparent heart attack after jogging. He was 56, and the basketball program he led to its first No. 1 ranking descended into grief.
Prosser is remembered with moments of silence and a banner in the rafters of Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Now, their tears wiped away, the players vow to carry on in his memory.
``If coach would talk down on us right now, his words would be, 'You keep fighting. My best friend's leading you guys, you guys better keep fighting,''' Smith said. ``'Do it for me; do it for him. I don't care if I'm around or not. You better carry yourselves in the same way.' ... We've carried his toughness.''
So far, that has shown on the court during a 12-6 start that includes victories in 11 of the first 14 games. The Demon Deacons, under coach Dino Gaudio, have won an Atlantic Coast Conference-best 15 straight home games dating to last season. They are playing their best basketball since the 2004-05 team, led by Prosser and Chris Paul, climbed to the top of the national rankings.
``You could very much say it has been the best team since then, and we just have to continue improving and get to the NCAA tournament,'' Smith said.
With winnable games ahead against Miami, North Carolina State, Georgia Tech and Virginia - all teams that trail Wake Forest in the league standings - it's possible the Demon Deacons could surpass last year's 15-win total by the second weekend in February.
``We know we can get at least eight more wins, nine more wins,'' Johnson said, without identifying specific games.
Maybe this is part of what Gaudio meant when, upon taking over for his late best friend Aug. 8, he said, ``From this tragedy ... is going to be one of the great success stories. We're going to have a storybook season. We've got to make this thing like a Shakespearean play, where they're writing books about what happens, from the bad to the good.''
One of the youngest teams in the ACC, the senior-free Demon Deacons have relied on a nucleus of five sophomores, three freshmen and a junior to exceed their modest preseason projection - they were picked 11th in the 12-team league - and vault into the middle of the pack.
``I don't want to say 'disappointed,' but we felt like we would have been a whole lot further than what we are now,'' Smith said. ``We're in the thick of things.''
Sometimes, that inexperience translated to big victories: Wake Forest rallied from an eight-point deficit in the final 82 seconds to beat Virginia Tech and dismantled a BYU team that is a contender in the Mountain West. Other times, it led to inconsistency: a 112-73 loss at Boston College was Wake Forest's most lopsided in 25 years.
``I think they're really driven,'' Gaudio said. ``I think the biggest thing is, they believe we can be good. They really believe. They're buying in, and for the most part, we've had some aberrations ... but they're really trying to defend. They're really buying in on the defensive end. Like I said at the beginning of the year, I think we can surprise a lot of people.''
Especially if they keep drawing their inspiration from their rafters, where the banner featuring Prosser's likeness hangs over the Wake Forest bench. While the team huddles before the starting lineups are introduced, Smith and Johnson admit to sneaking a peek at the pre-game video and, specifically, the shot of Prosser.
``When we first started playing, it was kind of like a tearjerker,'' Smith said. ``Now, it's kind of like a smile. You see him up there, and when we do 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' I look up to the rafters. He's always in the back of my mind. He's always in my memory. But it's kind of like an enjoyment - not for crying or tears.''
 

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