After enduring some growing pains last season, Wake Forest hopes it is ready for the big-time atmosphere both the ACC and NCAA tournaments will provide this month.
The eighth-ranked Demon Deacons get their first taste of the limelight Friday in Atlanta, where they play Maryland in the ACC quarterfinals.
The untimely death of coach Skip Prosser in the summer of 2007, coupled with a talented but young and inconsistent roster, led to an uneven 2007-08 season for Wake Forest as it finished 17-13 overall and made a first-round exit from the conference tournament.
With Dino Gaudio more comfortable in his second season after succeeding Prosser, sophomores Jeff Teague and James Johnson blossomed as they quickly made room for all-ACC freshman forward Al-Farouq Aminu, and the Demon Deacons (24-5) finished tied with Duke for second behind North Carolina in the conference and arrived in Atlanta on a four-game winning streak.
“We learned last year that everyone plays hard in the ACC, but they play so much harder in the tournament,” said Teague, a second team all-conference selection who leads Wake with 19.4 points per game. “People are fighting for their lives.”
Aminu, who averaged 13.0 points and a team-high 8.3 rebounds, was a unanimous selection to the ACC’s all-freshman team, finishing second in rookie of the year voting to Virginia’s Sylvan Landesburg. Aminu, a 6-foot-9 forward, is looking forward to helping the Demon Deacons try to secure as high a seed possible in their return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005.
“They have the experience of playing in the ACC and the NCAAs,” said Aminu, referring to the regular-season champion and No. 1 Tar Heels and third-seeded Duke, ranked ninth. “We’re a young team eager to prove ourselves.”
Teague had 17 points and Aminu added 16 and 14 rebounds in Wake’s 65-63 victory at Maryland on March 3, the lone meeting between the teams.
The Terrapins (19-12) are one of those teams “fighting for their lives” as Teague said, advancing to the quarterfinals after beating North Carolina State 74-69 in a first-round game Thursday. Eric Hayes hit six free throws in the final 2:08 and finished with a career-high 21 points for seventh-seeded Maryland, which rallied from a 13-point first-half deficit and took control with an 11-0 run late.
Coach Gary Williams’ team likely will have to reach the tournament final to have any realistic chance of being considered for a spot in the field of 65 for the second time in three years. But the Terps - 2-7 against AP Top 25 teams - have not advanced to the ACC semifinals since losing the 2004 title game to Duke.
“We’re playing for Sunday. We’re on a mission,” said Maryland point guard Greivis Vasquez, who added 17 points and 10 assists. “We knew if we won the game we were going to have a chance to play Wake Forest. We’re happy but we’re not satisfied.”
Vasquez shot 7-for-24 and finished with 16 points the loss to Wake Forest. The junior has averaged 20.7 points his last three games against the Demon Deacons.
This is the first meeting between the teams in the ACC tournament since Maryland won 87-86 in the 2004 quarterfinals. The winner of this game will play the winner of the Duke-Boston College game in the semifinals Saturday.