WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Chris Paul hadn't taken a shot this season when he was anointed a candidate for national player of the year. But things changed after just a few games.
Following a freshman season in which Wake Forest's star point guard could do no wrong, his every move suddenly was being examined and his failures magnified as he led a team facing the highest expectations in program history. Now he's a constant target for opponents seeking to frustrate the fourth-ranked Demon Deacons.
Yet Paul responds to it all with a shrug. Handling the pressure, he says, is his job.
"Everyone is gunning for me," he said. "You're the captain when the ship's sailing, and you're the captain when it sinks. That's just one of the things you have to deal with."
The sophomore, the leading vote-getter on The Associated Press preseason All-America team, is averaging 15 points, seven assists and three steals per game. The numbers are similar to those of his Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year campaign, but Paul says he judges his play by one thing: wins.
By that measure, Paul has improved substantially. Wake Forest, which hopes to reach its second Final Four, earned its first No. 1 ranking in November and has been among the nation's elite all year.
It's no wonder that Paul, who grew up in nearby Lewisville, is so popular here. Yet the 19-year-old nicknamed "The Mayor" has had to fight for everything this season.
After appearing on the cover of countless preseason publications, Paul heard criticism after a slow start. In an early four-game stretch, he failed to score in double figures three times, and his 10-point effort in the fourth hardly mattered in a lopsided loss at Illinois.
While that criticism eventually subsided, the ultra-competitive 6-footer is constantly in the middle of on-court tussles -- some created by his persistent defensive pressure on ballhandlers, others from opponents' efforts to irritate him with physical play.
"He's not going to back down from anybody," said Justin Gray, an all-ACC performer last year and Paul's roommate.
In the second matchup against Duke, coach Mike Krzyzewski started a walk-on who bumped and hacked Paul early to turn up the intensity in a top-10 matchup. Paul later picked up his second technical foul in as many games against the Blue Devils this season.
In last weekend's game against Virginia, Paul complained he was the victim of cheap shots after he was pushed around and shoved to the court -- the latter incident leading to Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser's first technical this season.
His you-won't-beat-me attitude might be his best asset, but it's exactly what opponents are counting on in trying to throw him off his game. While he's polite and relaxes by listening to gospel music off the court, he's downright feisty on it.
"At times I think people mistake my competitive nature for arrogance or as a dirty player," Paul said. "I don't care who's in front of me. Whatever I've got to do to win, that's what I'm going to do."
Paul has a drive that few others can match. In a much-publicized feat as a high school senior, he scored 61 points in a game to honor his grandfather, who had been beaten to death days earlier at age 61.
In that game, he scored the final points when he made a basket and was fouled, but he intentionally missed the free throw to stay at 61 -- seven points shy of breaking a 52-year-old North Carolina scoring record.
His competitiveness showed from an early age -- he once bit a playmate, the son of former NBA player and coach Sidney Lowe, in daycare for taking his snack -- and has never waned.
His father, Charles, remembers a 4-year-old Chris getting angry during basketball games against his older brother, C.J., now a senior guard at Division II South Carolina-Upstate, because he was too short to win.
Two years later, Chris irked some parents during flag football games because his aggressive blocks knocked opponents to the ground.
"Whatever sport he played," his father says, "he wanted to be the best."
That urge still seems insatiable. Paul and Gray challenge each other on everything from who can make the most baskets on a goal in their dorm room to bowling, which Paul takes seriously enough to own his own ball -- which looks like an ABA basketball.
Even his 10-year-old cousin doesn't get a pass.
"If I play 1-on-1, I'll let him get a couple of points," Paul said, "but in the end, I'm going to win. I hate for another person to be able to say that they beat me."
Paul says he thinks of nothing other than going to the Final Four. His determination is clear, but it's also a convenient way to avoid the question that Demon Deacons fans desperately want answered.
For now, Paul says he's not thinking about leaving for the NBA after the season.
"After the season, I'll probably think about it a lot," he said. "But right now, there ain't nothing like playing college basketball