WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP)—The Wake Forest scout-teamer wearing Tyler Hansbrough’s jersey number went up strong with the ball during practice, only to have Ty Walker forcefully swat it away.
Soon, these young Demon Deacons will try to do the same thing to the real Hansbrough.
As No. 4 Wake Forest prepares for its most significant game since the Chris Paul era—a Sunday night showdown with No. 3 North Carolina—coach Dino Gaudio’s inexperienced but talented team is out to prove that not only has it returned to prominence, it’s here to stay.
“(Freshman Al-Farouq Aminu) was recruited really hard by North Carolina, but he said he wanted to play against the best. He didn’t want to join them,” guard Jeff Teague said. “He told me … ‘I really want to play against these guys.’ I was like, ‘Well, you’ve got your chance now. There’s no more talking about it. We’re going to see what you can do when you’ve got the big guys on you.”’
One of three remaining unbeatens in Division I, the Demon Deacons (13-0) insist they’re ready for their biggest test so far.
“We all want to thrive in big games,” Aminu said.
And if nothing else, the Tar Heels (14-1, 0-1 ACC) will provide an accurate measuring stick to show either how far they have come, or how far they still have to go to match the lofty heights last reached when Paul ran the show in 2004-05 for the late Skip Prosser.
That year, he helped the Demon Deacons to their first No. 1 ranking, and they eventually settled for the No. 5 spot in the final poll. Along the way, they were ranked No. 4 when they knocked off a then-No. 3 North Carolina team that went on to win the national championship.
Fittingly, with the Tar Heels again the overwhelming favorites to claim another national title, both teams find themselves in the same positions this time around.
“They’ve got a tremendous amount of talent,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said Friday. “It’s kids who are hungry and still trying to prove themselves.”
Not surprisingly, Paul remains keenly interested in his hometown school.
The Winston-Salem native recently sent Teague a text message to congratulate the team for snapping BYU’s long home winning streak and asked fellow guard Ishmael Smith about his since-healed broken foot.
“He’s always encouraging, even when we lost last year,” Teague said.
There’s plenty on the line for these Demon Deacons, who with a win would maintain their high ranking and continue to gather respect, prestige and all those other precious intangibles.
Yet they insist the pressure isn’t on them, but on the Tar Heels—who clearly don’t want to fall to 0-2 in league play after their shocking loss to Boston College.
“We really have nothing to lose,” Teague said.
No other team in the ACC will provide a bigger test, literally, for Wake Forest than North Carolina—and perhaps vice versa, too.
“You look at the stats, and it’s eerie how closely the teams look, numbers-wise,” Williams said. “They may be as big as anybody in the league, or bigger than anybody in the league.”
The Demon Deacons’ young front line boasts four players who are 6-foot-11 or taller—a seemingly perfect combination to handle the 6-9 Hansbrough, the reigning AP national player of the year who dominated them in last year’s 89-73 victory. He scored 29 points, taking over the game after 7-foot center Chas McFarland picked up his fourth foul 48 seconds into the second half.
With a pair of 6-11 players, freshman Tony Woods and David Weaver, joining the 7-foot Walker on the bench, Gaudio has enough bodies to stick on Hansbrough and the Tar Heels’ other big men.
“I’m not sure if we could handle Tyler any better” than last year, Gaudio said, “but we have another guy or two that we can put on him.”
Then again, with both teams preferring to play at breakneck speed, this one could be decided by the guards—something that surely would please Paul.
“It’ll be fun for the fans. Coach Williams and I will be losing our minds,” Gaudio said. “The team that makes the best decisions in transition, from an offensive perspective, will have a little bit of an advantage. Knowing when we have the break and knowing when it’s not there, that we should pull it out and run half-court offense. Those decisions are made by Ish Smith, Jeff Teague and Ty (Lawson, North Carolina’s point guard). So our fate’s in those guys’ hands.”
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, N.C., contributed to this report.