Wake ready to start with eye on a strong finish
Wake Forest's latest stint at No. 1 didn't last long. Neither did its stay in the NCAA tournament. It was an abrupt fall from tops in the nation to first-round upset victim last year for the Demon Deacons, and the memories of both fueled offseason workouts and led players to torment themselves in a practice gym adorned with renderings of Chris Paul and Tim Duncan and banners commemorating past postseason appearances. "We started off 16-0, No. 1 in the country, then lay an egg in the NCAA tournament - it tore us to pieces when we knew we weren't going to finish our dream," guard L.D. Williams said Wednesday. "All season long, coach (Dino) Gaudio talked about 'Final Four, Final Four, Final Four,' and we don't even make the final 32. It kills us every day. "Guys don't want that feeling again. We didn't finish, and that's the big staple of everything this year - to finish." That certainly didn't happen last year: The fourth-seeded Demon Deacons stumbled in the postseason, becoming the highest-seeded team to fall in the first round when No. 13 seed Cleveland State outplayed them so thoroughly in an 84-69 romp that it didn't look like much of an upset. "Nobody remembers how you start," forward Al-Farouq Aminu said. "Everybody remembers how you end." Wake Forest might be hard-pressed to match some of last season's accomplishments - they opened with a school-record 16 straight wins and reached No. 1 for just the second time before finishing 24-7 - if only because leading scorers Jeff Teague and James Johnson left early for the NBA. Teague averaged nearly 19 points while Johnson added 15. "If I was in the media and I looked at the stats and last year, and saw who we're coming back with, I'd probably say the same thing," point guard Ishmael Smith said. "But we have a different mindset. We're working hard. You guys are going to be really, really surprised with the talent we have this year." That list starts with Aminu, who averaged 12.9 points last season. The team's only returning double-figure scorer, Aminu says he added an improved jump shot to his repertoire of athletic post moves. The speedy Smith reclaims his spot as the team's top distributor after he and Teague shared space in the backcourt. And school officials ensured Gaudio would be back through 2013-14, adding an extra two years onto the five-year contract he signed in 2007 after he assumed control of the program following the death of his best friend, Skip Prosser. "There's no question it helps recruiting when you show that stability," Gaudio said. Now the challenge is not just to elevate Wake Forest's program to a spot high in the ACC standings and the national rankings, but to keep it there. "Yeah, we lost (Teague and Johnson) ... but we still have a season of our own," Williams said. "We still have things that we want to accomplish that we haven't accomplished. "We come up here and play in this gym every day, and we look at the All-Americans and the NCAA appearances and all the banners around, and we want to put another year on the Elite Eight. We want to put the first year for the Final Four and whatnot. That's the things we want to do as a team, and we still have a lot to accomplish."