Wake Forest could have conducted a national search and targeted a number of high-profile candidates when former coach Skip Prosser died of a heart attack in July 2007. The chance to coach in the ACC in basketball-crazed Tobacco Road would have certainly drawn plenty of interest. But Wake chose to promote Dino Gaudio and kept the rest of the staff intact instead.
That move is looking pretty smart right about now.
A trio of five-star recruits signed letters of intent last fall. Forward Al Farouq-Aminu (6 feet 9) and centers Ty Walker (7-0) and Tony Woods (6-11) – who make up the nation's No. 3 recruiting class – had originally committed to Prosser. Other schools contacted the highly coveted prospects after his death, but they each reaffirmed those commitments soon after Gaudio (he and his assistants were heavily involved in the recruiting process) was named Prosser's replacement.
All that enormous talent and size joins what was already a promising young team that exceeded expectations in the first year of the Gaudio era. Picked to finish last in the ACC, the Demon Deacons went 7-9 and finished in a tie for seventh. Every scholarship player from that squad is back.
That all has generated a ton of preseason buzz for a program that was still dealing with Prosser's passing at this time last year. The Deacons are in many preseason top 25s – they're ranked No. 18 in the Rivals.com Top 65 Countdown – and are being pegged as one of the breakout teams to watch out for in 2008-09.
Gaudio said he welcomes all the extra attention.
"I'd rather have high expectations than not have them," said Gaudio, who was also Prosser's best friend. "I was at Army (he coached at the service academy from 1993-97) and our talent wasn't as good as the other teams. I'd much rather have these expectations than the other.
"I think we're a very young team ... I'll bet we're still the youngest team in the ACC. We have some experience with Jeff (Teague) and James (Johnson). Although they're sophomores, they've played a lot of basketball for us. We're young, but we're not completely inexperienced."
Teague and Johnson, each a former four-star recruit, were one of the top freshman tandems in the nation last season. Johnson, a versatile forward, was a steady weapon all season long, ranking 12th in the ACC in scoring (14.6 ppg) and third in rebounding (8.1 rpg). Teague, an ultra-quick guard, proved to be an explosive scorer, reaching the 25-point barrier five times. The two combined for 50 points in an 86-73 upset of then-No. 9 Duke.
Much like the 6-9 Johnson, Aminu is an inside-outside scorer who can be a major force on the boards, although he is a little longer. The two probably will see plenty of time together on the court, which will create some matchup issues for opponents.
"We've been running different plays where I'm at the 3 (small forward) most of the time and (Aminu is) at the 4 (power forward) most of the time," Johnson said. "And then the next day I'll go at the 4 most of the time and he'll go at the 3 most of the time. We're just trying to have a different kind of view of things. If there's a big guy guarding me, obviously I'm going to go to the 3. If there's a big guy guarding him, then he can work the 3, too. It's going to be hard for people to guard both of us."
Walker and Woods can make it extremely tough to score on the inside on the Deacs, who already return two of the league's top 10 shot-blockers. Seven-foot junior Chas McFarland ranked fifth at 1.6 bpg and Johnson was eighth at 1.3 bpg.
"I think Ty is going to make a big difference with his shot-blocking ability," Teague said. "We expect Farouq and Tony to do well, but no one is really talking about Ty. He's going to be a great shot-blocker and a great defender for us."
How quickly the newcomers can jell and gain some cohesiveness with their new teammates will be critical. Nine players who were steady parts of the rotation return for the Deacs.
"It's about chemistry with this team and how well we play with each other," senior guard Harvey Hale said. "Can we fit those new guys into our system, and can we fit those new guys into being impact players for us right away? That will determine how big of a year we have."
Just hearing Wake players talk about a possible big year shows how much the environment has changed for a program that was grieving and appeared to be in trouble a year ago. The recruiting efforts of Prosser, which may be his lasting legacy, and the pivotal decision to make one of Prosser's former assistants his successor are to thank for that.