NCAA Tournament: Wake out to prove itself
By Joedy McCreary
There’s only one scholarship senior on Wake Forest’s roster, and the starting lineup is comprised entirely of underclassmen.
Sounds like the perfect formula for a few years of deep NCAA tournament runs for the Demon Deacons, right?
Maybe not. It’s not unthinkable that three of their key players could leave school early for the NBA, and that’s feeding the lurking suspicion that this not only could be the first foray into March Madness for Wake Forest’s young stars ó it also might be their last.
“We have a lot of talented players, so we have to seize the moment now,” guard Jeff Teague said. “Hopefully, everybody comes back. It’d be great. But you’ve got to be realistic, and you’ve got to seize the moment now. It’s your chance.”
The fourth-seeded Demon Deacons (24-6) headed to Miami on Wednesday in preparation for their Midwest Regional opener Friday against 13th-seeded Cleveland State (25-10).
But in addition to the distractions that accompany a spot in the field of 65 come those lingering questions about just how long the young players will stick around after the late Skip Prosser recruited them to Winston-Salem and they’ve kept their commitments to his replacement, Dino Gaudio.
It’s the first NCAA tournament game for any of Wake Forest’s current players and the school’s first since 2005, when Chris Paul ran the show for the first team to reach No. 1 in the program’s history. Once he left following his sophomore season, the Demon Deacons spiraled into mediocrity ó until now.
As Wake Forest rose back to relevance, three players emerged as potential candidates to turn pro early, and have showed up in several online mock drafts.
Teague came forward as the team’s breakout star with a quick first step and a knack for beating his man off the dribble, and finished fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring with an average of 19.1 points. Forward James Johnson showed he could score both in the post and on the perimeter, and freshman Al-Farouq Aminu led all ACC freshmen in rebounding while living up to his billing as one of the nation’s most highly regarded high school players.
“There’s no extra pressure ó I don’t feel it, at least,” Johnson said. “I haven’t made any decision to go next year. I just want to play Wake Forest basketball, and that’s what I want to be doing. That’s what I’ve been doing the whole year. My main focus and my main goal is just to get as far as we wanted to, since we started practice the first day.
“I think we’re all focused, and we all know what we want to do and what we need to do” in the tournament, Johnson said.
If the players opt for the NBA, they would possibly be making a mistake. Gaudio said NBA scouts have told him his stars are not ready for the league yet.
“The good thing about it, when I talked to our players, they all said, to a man, ‘Coach, I know I need another year,”‘ Gaudio said. “If it’s Jeff or it’s Farouq, throughout the year, I had a couple of messages from NBA guys. … They called and said, ‘This kid needs to get stronger,’ ‘This kid needs to shoot the ball better.’
Gaudio realizes at some point he and his stars will have the talk about the NBA, but right now they’re focused on Cleveland State.
“I think the kids realize that we’ve just got to worry about today,” Gaudio said. “…So I don’t think they’re too worried about that. I can’t be worried about that. When the time comes, if they think for a minute that they’re ready … I’m just worried about winning the next game, and if it does come then, we’ll deal with it then.”