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January 17, 2009
Around the Rim
Putting the D in Demon Deacons

by John Perrotto

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Wake Forest is establishing itself as a serious national title contender--and the Pomeroy Ratings have played a part in the Demon Deacons' rise.

"We really pay close attention to the Pomeroy Ratings here because they give you a truer indication of how good a team is offensively or defensively than just average points in a game because it is based on every 100 possessions," Gaudio said. "You can't say a team is good defensively just because it holds the ball on offense and keeps the score down. The Pomeroy Ratings are very revealing."

The Pomeroy Ratings did not tell a good story for Wake Forest at the end of the 2006-07 season when the late Skip Prosser was head coach and Gaudio his top assistant. The Demon Deacons were ranked 88th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency with an 88.7 mark, part of the reason they finished 15-15.

"We knew we had to make some changes to what we do defensively," Gaudio said.

So, the Wake Forest staff began breaking down tape of some of the best defensive teams in the country and came to the conclusion that it should pattern itself after the packed-in zone (Ed. note: Actually, a packed-in man-to-man.--JSS) defense Dick Bennett used so successfully at Wisconsin-Green Bay, Wisconsin and Washington State. In addition to having long phone conversations with the Bennett and his son Tony, the current coach at Washington State, the Wake Forest staff traveled to Cincinnati to have watch film and go over basic principles of the defense with Xavier coach Sean Miller and his staff.

"We spent a lot of time on it, really researched it heavily before deciding on using it," Gaudio said. "It was a radical departure from what Skip had been used to and I had been doing in my 26 years of coaching. We had always been believers in attacking the passing lanes and going baseline-to-baseline with pressure. When we decided to make the change, we knew it couldn't be a situation where we stuck our toe in the water at the end of the pool, thought it was too cold then turned around. We knew we had to dive right in."

Prosser died of a heart attack while jogging that summer but Gaudio was promoted to head coach and pressed on with the zone. The results have been telling.

Wake Forest rose to 63rd in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency last season with a 94.1 mark and its record improved to 17-13. This season, the Demon Deacons are fourth in ADE at 83.1 behind just Louisville (81.1), Duke (81.3) and Memphis (81.8).

Wake Forest is 15-0 overall and 2-0 in the ACC and will face one of the nation's other two unbeaten teams today when it visits Clemson (16-0, 2-0). The other unbeaten is Pittsburgh (16-0).

Gaudio has been so impressed with his team's defense that he credited it as the main reason Wake Forest beat pre-season No. 1 North Carolina 92-89 last Sunday in what, on the surface, seemed like an offensive shootout. However, the Tar Heels shot 35 percent from the field, including 26 percent from three-point range. Their effective field goal percentage was 39.2.

"The defensive change has been good for us," Gaudio said. "The kids have bought into it and believe in it. It makes such a difference when you play good defense. You can have an off night offensively and still have a chance to win. Defense has definitely been the foundation of all the success we've had to this point in the season."

The team concept has been big for Wake Forest because none of its individual players are enjoying outstanding seasons. In fact, just two players rank among the nation's top 100 in any of the advanced metrics.

Sophomore guard Jeff Teague is 27th in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (7.0), 36th in true shooting percentage (66.3) and 99th in number of possessions while sporting a team-high 117.6 offensive rating. Junior center Chas McFarland is 77th in offensive rebounding percentage (13.6), helping him to a 116.7 offensive rating.

Teague has emerged as Wake Forest's best player on a talented team.

"You can't compare him to anybody," Demon Deacons junior guard Ishmael Smith said. "He's unstoppable."

McFarland stopped himself a lot last season, according to Gaudio.

"I don't know how many technical fouls he had but he has really learned to control his emotions this year," Gaudio said. "He still plays with that fire down below, which is what you want to see, but he is more under control."

Wake Forest is maturing as a team despite having no senior starters. That showed Wednesday night when the Demon Deacons came off the North Carolina win with an 83-63 road victory over Boston College.

"Last year, we beat a pretty good Duke team but didn't handle it very well," Gaudio said. "This team isn't going to get full of itself, though. These kids know there is a lot more work to done. Beating North Carolina was great but they want to win a lot more games before the season is over."

Meeks' Huge Night

Suddenly, Kentucky junior guard Jodie Meeks is getting mentioned as a potential All-American. That is what happens when you break a 39-year-old record held by a revered player in one of the nation's most storied programs.

Meeks scored a school-record 54 points on Tuesday night in a 90-72 win at Tennessee. Meeks, who has been quietly having an outstanding year, is now being talked about as one of the top players in the nation. The old record of 53 was set by Dan Issel in 1970 against Mississippi. Meeks' ten three-point field goals were also a Wildcats' record.

"It feels great to be mentioned with the top players in the country," Meeks said. "I don't see myself that way. I see myself as a guy who comes in every day and works hard to get better. I don't see myself as the best player in the country. Of course, I have confidence but I don't look at myself as being overly confident."

Meeks has certainly been Kentucky's go-to guy as he is 16th in the nation in percentage of shots (35.0) and 74th in percentage of possessions (28.8) while ranking 180th in percentage of minutes (82.7). He is 82nd in true shooting percentage (63.1) and 187th in effective field goal percentage (57.2) while standing 91st in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (6.1) and 215th in offensive rating (116.4).

Meeks, though, feels the reason he was able to score the most points in a Southeastern Conference game since Louisiana State's Chris Jackson had 55 against 54 against Tennessee is because of the inside presence of sophomore forward Patrick Paterson, whose 136.5 offensive rating is fourth in the country.

"Having Patrick helps a lot," Meeks said. "He is probably the main reason why I'm getting such good looks at the basket. The defense has to shift down and focus on him, which allows me to get the open shots that I get because he is such a threat inside. Without him I wouldn't be scoring as many points as I do."

Meeks has scored at least 30 points on four other occasions this season. He had 39 in a 111-103 loss to Virginia Military Institute on Nov. 14. 37 in a 74-72 win over Kansas State on Nov. 29, 46 in a 93-69 win over Appalachian State on Dec. 20 and 32 in a 102-58 win over Tennessee State on Dec. 22. However, none of those efforts compared to what he did against Tennessee as he was 15-of-22 from the field, 10-of-15 from three-point range and 14-of-14 from the foul line.

"I didn't even know I had that many points until I was taken out of the game for the first time," Meeks said. "When I saw I had so many points, I was amazed. My main thing was to win. It would have been a shame if I had scored that many points and we had lost. When I'm playing the game I just try to play. I'm focusing on what I'm trying to do and that's to help the team in an way possible. Afterward I thought about it and then I saw the clips on Sports Center several times. It's great exposure not only for me but for this program."

Montgomery's Return to Stanford

California coach Mike Montgomery prefers that the focus not be on him today when his surprising Golden Bears visit archrival Stanford. However, Montgomery can't help but be in the spotlight since it will be his visit to Palo Alto since spending 18 seasons coaching at Stanford before leaving for the NBA's Golden State Warriors.

However, Montgomery insists returning to The Farm is no big deal.

"Honestly, it's a tough road game for us and that's the first thing that comes to my mind about this game," Montgomery said. "Yeah, you'll walk back in and see a lot of people you know who have been friends and have supported you. Other than that, though, I don't see too much more to it. None of my kids played against Stanford when I coached there. I've never coached any of Stanford's kids. What it is, though, is a big league game and everyone knows that road wins are crucial in the Pac-10 and home losses are hurtful."

California is 15-2 overall and 4-0 in the Pacific 10 in Montgomery's first season after he replaced Ben Braun was fired. Stanford, which also has a first-year coach in Johnny Dawkins, is 11-3 and 1-3.

Stanford is 47th in the nation in adjusted tempo at 71.1, a much faster pace than Montgomery employed while coaching the Cardinal. California's adjusted tempo is 67.9, slightly over the national average of 67.4, and 142nd in the country. Montgomery admits that coaching in the NBA caused him to rethink his offensive philosophy.

"The biggest thing about coaching pro basketball is you get an understanding of how to get good players scoring opportunities and let them make plays," Montgomery said. "It's an understanding that there's more than one way to skin a cat, more than one way to play the game."

Louisville Surging

Louisville gets its chance to knock off Pitt, the top-ranked team in The Associated Press poll, today and is playing its best ball of the season after opening Big East play with victories over South Florida, Villanova and Notre Dame. That came after a disappointing non-conference portion of the season in which the Cardinals were 9-3 and lost to Western Kentucky, Minnesota and Nevada Las Vegas.

However, Louisville is again looking like a potential Final Four team and a serious threat to tag Pitt with its first loss.

"We've been very focused, especially defensively," Cardinals coach Rick Pitino said.

Louisville's two senior starters, forward Terrence Williams and point guard Andre McGee, got the Cardinals focused by calling a players-only meeting before the conference opener.

"This league will eat you up if you don't play as a team," McGee told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "We needed to get everybody more worried about how well they moved the ball than how well they shot it. We needed to start playing as a team."

The message has been delivered.

"Every day we build more team chemistry," junior guard Earl Clark said. "Every day we learn to count on each other a little more."

A New Challenge

The pairings have been announced for first annual Missouri Valley/Mountain West Conference Challenge next season:

Bradley at Brigham Young, Nov. 13
Colorado State at Indiana State, Nov. 20
Southern Illinois at UNLV, Nov. 21
Air Force at Missouri State, Dec. 5
Texas Christian at Wichita State, Dec. 12
Creighton at New Mexico, Dec. 19
Illinois State at Utah, Dec. 19
San Diego State at Drake, Dec. 22
Wyoming at Northern Iowa, Dec. 23

Games to Watch

Five games to watch, according to the Pomeroy Ratings with all times Eastern:

No. 7 Georgetown (12-3) at No. 1 Duke (15-1), Saturday, Jan. 17, 1:30 p.m., CBS
No. 4 Arizona State (14-3) at No. 14 UCLA (14-2), Saturday, Jan. 17, 3:45 p.m., CBS
No. 3 Pittsburgh (16-0) at No. 13 Louisville (12-3), Saturday, Jan. 17, 6 p.m., ESPN
No. 17 Clemson (16-0) at No. 2 North Carolina (15-2), Wednesday, Jan. 21, 9 p.m., ESPN
No. 8 West Virginia (12-4) at No. 7 Georgetown (12-3), Thursday, Jan. 22, 7 p.m., ESPN

John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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