Gonzaga's inability to attract big-time BCS college basketball programs to the Kennel has been well documented. Heck, the Zags have struggled to even get mediocre BCS programs into the Kennel (I'm looking at you, Washington). Before this season, Mark Few has basically been relegated to compromising with other programs and playing in the larger and less intimate Spokane Arena. However, this has all changed as Gonzaga fans will soon be spoiled with some excellent home and home series. Next season, Gonzaga will welcome Wake Forest into the Kennel and in coming years Michigan State and Xavier will venture into what has become one of the toughest places to play in the nation.
When we look at Wake Forest, it is hard to imagine a team the had as many ups and downs and Dino Gaudio's squad last season. We'll get into more detail about Wake's season last year later in the post but they became only the 2nd team in 25 years to complete a feat that no coach ever wants to have on their resume. To put it plainly, Wake entered the season with a bang and left with barely a whimper and things did not get any easier in the offseason. Wake Forest's top two players departed for a lucrative career in the NBA and they are left as a 2009-10 team that will take some time to locate their identity. Although Jeff Teague and James Johnson are now making buckets in the NBA, Wake Forest is not short in terms of size or talent. I can't imagine a physically more imposing team ever coming to the Kennel. Five players on the Wake Forest roster check in at 6'9'' or taller and they can all play. They have a player in Al-Farouq Aminu that passed up serious NBA $$$ by returning to school and he is a sure fire bet to wind up on someones All-American team by seasons end. With all that being said, the loss of Jeff Teague and James Johnson means that Wake has lost 34 points of production from a season ago and the two guys that were looked upon in big moments. There's no doubt that Aminu and Co. can make up for the lost production, but in the always competitive ACC, their game with Gonzaga could be huge for them in dictating their NCAA future.
Last Season: As I said in the introduction, Wake Forest became the second team in 25 years to be ranked #1 in the AP Poll and then proceed to lose their opening game of the NCAA Tournament. "Lose" is also a very nice way of putting what happened to Wake Forest in March Madness. After losing to Maryland in the opening round of the ACC Tournament, Wake entered the tourney as a three seed and still a pretty sexy pick to go to the final four. Before they could even get started, Cleveland State handed them an 84-69 whooping in the first round. By the time the game ended, I don't think anyone watching the two teams play felt that there was an upset happening. Looking back on a happier time for Wake fans, the beginning of the season was bliss. By no means did they play a difficult nonconference schedule but they were tested early in the ACC. Games against North Carolina and at Clemson in January gave Wake Forest two wins to hang their hats on and by mid-January, they were the top team in the land having won their first 16 games. The ACC slate was tough for Wake as they tended to play up and down according to the skill of their opponents. Case in point, they only lost one conference game to a ranked opponent (Duke) but suffered painful back to back losses at the hands of Georgia Tech and Miami. This makes their confusing losses in late March to Maryland (ACC Tourney) and Cleveland State (NCAA Tourney) a little more understandable but it is safe to say that Wake Forest fans are anxiously awaiting the 2009-10 season to get that taste out of their mouths.
New Faces: I feel like no matter what happens in my life, I'll always remember the 2008 Wake Forest recruiting class. Skip Prosser was one of the most well-respected coaches in all of college basketball but he had never recruited a class like the one he did in 2008. When Prosser suddenly passed away in July of 2007, basketball was the farthest thing from the minds of college basketball fans but many wondered what would happen with the unbelievable 2008 recruiting class he had scheduled to come to Wake. The administration at WFU decided to promote from within basically guaranteeing stability in the program and the 2008 class honored their commitments to the program. Now those three players, Aminu, Tony Woods, and Ty Walker will be central to the program as they welcome a very solid 2009 class. The gem of the recruiting class is four-star small forward Ari Stewart. Like I mentioned earlier, Wake's frontline is loaded with outstanding height and length and I think that Stewart will provide a little more versatility to that literally enormous frontline and he could work his way into the starting lineup because of it. Junior college transfer Konner Tucker and freshman CJ Harris will probably be called upon at some point this season as the Deacons are very thin in the backcourt after Teague's departure. While Wake Forest would like to nurture Harris with a redshirt season, the odds of that happening are unlikely.
Players to Watch: Many are predicting this season to be one of the most topsy-turvy and inconsistent seasons in ACC history. With so much lost production and star power from a season ago, no team is safe from implosion but most teams in the conference could make team tournament runs as well. Wake Forest, in particular is an interesting case study as they will be relying on a number of unproven kids to bring them back to the tournament. Leading the charge for Wake Forest will be Al-Farouq Aminu. Draft experts were stunned and Wake Forest fans were celebrating when Aminu decided to return to Winston Salem for his sophomore season. Aminu has star potential written all over him and he was ridiculously efficient in his freshman year. He shot 52 percent from the field, averaging 13 points and 8 rebounds a game, a statline which landed him on basically everyone's Freshman All-American list. He really does everything well on the court and as long as he continues to add strength, he will develop into one of the tougher match ups in the entire nation. After Aminu, there is a number of players vital to Wake's success. The three most important players besides Aminu will be Ish Smith, Ty Walker, and Tony Woods. Ish started his freshman and sophomore seasons at Wake before getting injured and clearing the path for Teague. He is an assist machine and will have to provide a calming force for the Demon Deacons in the backcourt. Ty Walker and Tony Woods are kind of a package deal as they made up the rest of the 2008 recruiting class with Aminu. They were both five-star recruits and will have to make huge strides in their game as they were very inconsistent a season ago.
Concerns: Gonzaga has rarely welcomed a team with as much talent to the Kennel as Wake Forest will bring. I know for a fact that no team ever to come to Gonzaga will be physically as imposing. With five players over 6'9'', they are going to test the mettle of the Bulldog's frontcourt. Aminu and Chas MacFarland are both proven scorers in the paint for Wake and will be a tough test for whoever Mark Few decides to put out there. If Walker and Woods are able to contribute more consistently this season, it could be a long night for the Zags. The key for Gonzaga will be to stay out of foul trouble. This could be a tough task as it will be one of the first real front court tests for inexperienced guys like Andy Poling, Elias Harris, and Rob Sacre. This could really turn out to be one of the first games where Will Foster will be expected to contribute in a noticeable way.
What we are watching for: As I outlined in the concerns, the battle for Gonzaga will be the frontcourt but they should have the advantage in the backcourt. Ish Smith is joined in the backcourt by LD Williams and neither are really outstanding scoring guards. I'd expect the pair to average about 20 points a game combined but they really do make up for it in other ways. Smith is a tremendous assist man and LD Williams is one of the better defenders in the ACC. With that being said, Gonzaga will have to win the battle of the backcourts to win this game. I doubt they have enough to stop Aminu, MacFarland will get his points no matter what, and the rest of the Wake front court will contribute but if Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray can establish themselves early and Demetri Goodson can frustrate Ish Smith defensively, it could be a favorable outcome in Spokane for the home team.