When you win a national championship, you get a big ring, a trip to the White House, and a bunch of games on national television the next year. All that's really nice, but those national television games can be a mixed blessing. Duke heads into Saturday afternoon's matchup with the Wake Forest Demon Deacons just 36 hours after an hard fought battle with Maryland. Contrast that to the Demon Deacons who have been waiting since Tuesday to bounce back from their first ACC loss. (Note to Rev. Gatewood: You may wish to look into that whole Demon Deacon thing.)
Saturday afternoon will be all about character for the Devils. For many teams, an emotional letdown after a big game two days earlier would almost be expected. For a Duke team that's been playing with turbocharged intensity ever since a loss to Florida State, the dangers are even greater. It's tempting to look back to past seasons and, remembering a huge Duke win in a big situation, think that playing flat is not something that could happen to a Duke team. But emotional energy is no different that physical energy and even Duke teams aren't gifted with an infinite reserve.
In fact, the differences between teams at the top level of college basketball are often not measured in terms of physical talent. During the course of a game or a season what separates teams is the ability to play at their peak. Thursday was a prime example of a one team (Duke) able to execute for more of the game than their opponent. The question for Saturday is how much of that emotional reserve is left after Thursday?
The Deacs are adjusting to life with new coach Skip Prosser who brings to Wake the novel concept that it's okay to shoot the ball before the shot clock hits the 10 second mark. Under longtime coach Dave Odom, the Deacs had enjoyed several great years, most notably during the Tim Duncan era. But in recent years Odom's teams had slipped and his recruiting had fallen off. Sensing things could potentially get strained at Wake, Odom jumped at the South Carolina job when it came open.
Prosser has Wake playing a more uptempo game than the methodical Odom. That quicker pace takes advantage of a Wake roster that has few superstars, but a wealth of very good and athletic players. The Deacs are scoring more points and forcing more turnovers than last year (although they're also turning the ball over more on their end of the floor). The results have been positive with the Deacs ranked 13th in the nation and tied for the ACC lead in the loss column.
The Wake Forest frontline is an excellent blend of strength, skill, and athleticism. Darius Songaila is back for his senior season and the 6-9 center leads Wake with a 16.6 ppg average. That's up over 3 points from last year and the biggest difference is that Songaila is able to stay on the floor more this year. He has always been one of the most skilled big men in the ACC, but his downfall has been on the defensive end where he has been a perennial favorite target of league officials.
Prosser has made a concerted effort to keep Songaila on the floor more this year, utilizing a zone to protect him if necessary. That's important for the Deacs because although the team has depth in most places, they are not deep in the pivot. Songaila is clearly their best scoring option inside. He has a nice turnaround jumper along the baseline and uses his strength to get separation from his defender. One overlooked part of his game is his ability to relocate the ball out of the pivot. He does a good job of finding the open shooter after opposing defense collapse on him in the paint.
Complementing Songaila's strength and skill is Antwan Scott, an explosive 6-8 power forward. I'm now fully convinced that there are more ways to spell "Antwan" then there are ways that Kenny Smith could mispronounce "Delvon." Scott is probably happier to see Prosser's arrival than any other player on the Deacons. In his first three year's at Wake, Scott was never able to get out and show his run and jump athleticism. He clearly chafed in the halfcourt style of Odom and saw his playing time limited to 16 minutes a game last year.
This year is a different story for Scott and the senior is averaging almost 30 minutes a game. He's very similar in style to Maryland's Chris Wilcox in that he can score well around the basket but is inconsistent with his jump shot. Scott may have some difficulties on Saturday as he suffered a compound dislocated middle finger on his left hand in the Tuesday loss at Virginia. He returned in that game and played the second half with a splint on the finger but was held scoreless. Defensively, he's intimidating near the basket, using his leaping ability to lead the team in blocked shots.
Things don't get much easier for Duke's Dahntay Jones. His defensive effort on Thursday night against Juan Dixon ranks right up there with the best from Duke players in recent years. Think Nate James on Juan Dixon at the Final Four or Chris Carrawell on Steve Francis. Against Wake, he'll probably draw the defensive assignment on Josh Howard, the leading scorer on last year's Wake team. The 6-6 junior has a versatile game that is ideal for Prosser's style. Like Songaila, he can be foul prone. But he does a little bit of everything very well. He's a reasonable outside shooter, but he's far more effective driving the ball to the basket. Howard is also a great rebounder, particularly on the offensive glass where he averages nearly 4 a game.
One of the areas where Dave Odom excelled was in identifying foreign recruits with potential. There's the obvious story with Tim Duncan and then there's guys like Rafael Vidaurreta and Songaila. Odom liked the results with Songaila so much he decided to go after Vytas Danelius, another product of Songaila's homeland of Lithuania. The 6-8, 228 lb. Danelius almost backed out of his commitment to Wake when Odom left, but Prosser was able to convince him to enroll and he's enjoying a solid freshman season. Danelius is aggressive on offense and uses his size well inside. He's a lot like Songaila in that he has a nice shot and can extend outside. He's not a three point shooter, but he has the potential to become one.
In addition to Danelius, freshman Jamal Levy gives the Deacons depth up front. At 6-9 and 177 lb., Levy is one of the few guys in the league that could be pushed around by Julius Hodge. As you would expect from a guy that size, he plays more of a perimeter game. Levy can handle the ball well and has decent range on his jumper, but is not a significant 3-point threat.
One area where the Deacons have struggled is with their outside shooting - as a team, they are hitting just 34%. But starting shooting guard Craig Dawson is one of the league leaders from deep, converting on 41% of his attempts. At 6-5, Dawson has the size to shoot over most defenders. He doesn't do much other than attempt a deep shot. Nearly 70% of his shot attempts have come from beyond the three-point line.
Point guards Ervin Murray and Broderick Hicks have spent 4 years swapping playing time at Wake Forest. At various times throughout their careers each one has been a starter. This year, it's the 6-1 Hicks that has emerged as the starter. He's not a great shooter but can be effective if he can get penetration. However, he is a better shooter than Murray, who is hitting just 26% of his attempts this year.
Neither Murray nor Hicks are ideal point guards in Prosser's system. Both were competent in Odom's more halfcourt oriented game. Murray is more comfortable with a slower paced game and Hicks, while better suited for the open court, has a tendency to make poor decisions. Freshman reserve Taron Downey may be the guy to change all that in the future. Downey is a 6-2 point guard who can put up big offensive numbers. He's struggling with the transition to ACC play, but has the potential to become a major contributor.
Rounding out the backcourt is Steve Lepore, a 6-5 junior. Lepore is a good spot up shooter, but has been in a slump for most of the year.
As stated earlier, the first challenge for Duke is to be able to come out and play with the intensity needed to beat a very good Wake Forest team. But the Demon Deacons have to decide how they will defend against Duke. Wake has utilized a variety of halfcourt traps and full court presses this year to force the tempo and create turnovers. But against a Blue Devil team with three great ball handlers, the Deacons may give up a lot of easy baskets with a trapping defense.
When Duke is on defense, the primary goal will be to deny the ball to Songaila in the post. With Wake's dearth of outside shooting, Duke should be able to give Boozer more weakside help than they were against Lonny Baxter. That could be vital because, although Matt Christensen played well against Maryland, it's questionable whether his knees will allow him to log as many minutes on Saturday.
One concern for Prosser is how to keep Songaila out of foul trouble. If Songaila picks up any early fouls, Wake may be forced to play a zone defense against Duke. It's unlikely they want to do that as the Devils can flood the floor with outside shooters.
Wake will also have to decide how to use Howard, their best defensive player. Much as Maryland opted to use their small forward (Mouton) to defend Mike Dunleavy, Wake may do the same. Scott, who is more comfortable near the hoop is a good matchup on Jones who does most of his scoring in the 13 foot range. Expect to see that type of matchup switch several times over the course of the next few games until Jones shows more offensive range to pull power forwards away from the basket.
However, for the Deacons, it may be a question of picking their poison. Wake's backcourt isn't exceptional defensively and Prosser may need to use Howard on Jason Williams. That's not nearly as ideal a switch as it would leave Craig Dawson to defend against either Jones or Dunleavy, both of whom would be able to post or drive on him.
A well-rested Duke club playing at home would be a tough matchup for the Deacons. Duke presents a number of problems for Wake, not the least of which would be how to handle Dunleavy and Williams at the same time. Compound that with the fact that Boozer has the ability to get Songaila into foul trouble and things would look pretty good for Duke. But Duke is not a well-rested club. It's a club coming off a tough game and facing another one.
Krzyzewski is supposedly treating the Maryland and Wake games like a Final Four. Teams that win in March are teams that have the ability to consistently play with intensity. Duke's intensity on the court against a tough Wake team will give a good indication of how they will handle the grind of the NCAA Tournament.