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Next Up - A Vastly Improved Wake Forest

Duke goes to Winston-Salem Wednesday for a very interesting matchup with the Demon Deacons.
Time: 7:00 || TV: ESPNU || Venue: Joel Memorial Coliseum

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Jan 2, 2016; Chestnut Hill, MA, USA; The Duke Blue Devils huddle at a break in the action during the 2nd half of the game against the Boston College Eagles at Silvio O. Conte Forum. Duke won 81-64.
Jan 2, 2016; Chestnut Hill, MA, USA; The Duke Blue Devils huddle at a break in the action during the 2nd half of the game against the Boston College Eagles at Silvio O. Conte Forum. Duke won 81-64.
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Next up for Duke is Wake Forest, and this year, Wake at Wake is the very definition of a dangerous game.

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When Danny Manning took the job, there was a lot of uncertainty about Wake Forest basketball. The fans had turned on his predecessor, Jeff Bzdelik. Everyone seemed to recognize Manning's potential, but Wake Forest brought him home (he grew up in the Triad) with just two years as a head coach under his belt.

So far, it looks like a brilliant hire.

Manning had a tough transition last year at least partly because his players were still...well traumatized is probably too strong a word..but conditioned? To mediocrity?

That might work.

Bzdelik was a strange presence, an introvert who couldn't seem to reach out to his critics and perhaps not to his players.

And in fairness, Manning has always been a quiet guy too, but as a Kansas senior, he showed enough mettle to lead a relatively weak group to the national title. In the NBA he had a long career which was unfortunately marred by injuries. But his intelligence and effort kept him around.

As an assistant, he could have settled in as a big man specialist, but he didn't. He had a reasonable run at Tulsa, finishing up at 38-29 and making the NCAA in his second year.

Good enough for Wake! The Deacs snapped him up and he set about remaking the program.

Last year was rocky, as we mentioned. Wake was close at times. The Deacs gave Louisville and Duke reasonably competitive games early and lost at Syracuse 86-83 in overtime. Wake lost to Florida State in double overtime and very nearly knocked off Virginia.

They also got hammered fairly often. In rematches, Virginia and Duke crushed Wake, 70-34 and 94-51.

Still, what Manning was doing was building a culture, and this season, it's really taken root.

Wake is 9-4 so far. The losses are to Richmond (Richmond is to Wake as Harvard is to BC) and Vandy in November.

More recently, Wake gave Xavier -  Jay Bilas has Xavier as a potential Final Four team - and Louisville scares.

Louisville has as good a shot as most teams.

Wake should have beaten Xavier and could have beaten Louisville.

After getting a good scare, Rick Pitino said Wake wasn't rebuilding anymore. The Deacs are for real.

Essentially he's correct, but Wake still has to take the next step and take down a big-time team.

Enter Duke.

In a lot of ways, Duke is the ideal opponent for Wake Forest right now, because Duke's weaknesses inside play into some strengths for Wake, at least on offense.

Wake has three bigger players for Duke to deal with: Konstantinos Mitoglou, John Collins and Devin Thomas.

Thomas's talent has been obvious since his first trip to Duke. He's really talented. At times his emotions can sabotage him, but in general he's become very good. He's averaging a double-double as a senior, putting up 16.4 ppg and 10.2 rpg.

Mitoglou is as much a perimeter player as he is an inside player. Mitoglou takes about five per game.

And John Collins is a freshman who is getting nearly 10 ppg and 5 rpg.

All of this makes Marshall Plumlee indispensable.

Wake returns Mitchell Wilbekin and Codi Miller-McIntyre at guard. Wilbekin is getting the most minutes of anyone on the team which underscores his importance. Miller-McIntyre is still getting over his foot injury but he's experienced.

And as we saw at Louisville, freshman Bryant Crawford is talented enough to take over a game, but still young enough to lose one. He hit a huge three to put Wake back in the Louisville game, but then missed free throws which could have won it. You could see his confidence drain. It went from supreme to gone in about the time it took to read this far.

It'll be back. He's an immensely promising player.

Wake also has Cornelius Hudson, Greg McClinton, Rondale Watson and Trent VanHorn to fill out the rotation.

It's still a young group overall, and still adapting to Manning's system and his powerful will, but as Pitino correctly noted, Wake's really made progress.

Duke does present some issues though. Mitoglou is a big mismatch, but so is Brandon Ingram. The 6-9 freshman from Kinston has emerged as a star and a very difficult matchup. He can shoot deep or drive and lately he's shown some chops as a passer as well.

Grayson Allen is a threat for 30 on any night and like Ingram, he can score from anywhere. Both guys can jump out of the gym.

Matt Jones can't, but he's long since proved his versatility and value, and this year he's stepped up as a scorer too.

Duke is increasingly reliant on Derryck Thornton and Luke Kennard. Thornton  has been erratic but he's really come on too as he masters the system and what the point guard has to do.

As for Kennard...since the Georgia Southern game, he's gone for 11, 24, 18 nine and 17. He's also become an opportunistic scorer and a guy who can understand the flow of the game and weave in and out of it. He's not going to be doing weird, unreliable things. The worst thing you could say about Kennard at this point is that he might not be assertive enough. His three point shooting is still erratic but when that comes around, he's going to be a real force.

This would be a good game for Chase Jeter to step up. Duke will probably need some help inside and Jeter can provide it.

Since losing Amile Jefferson, Duke has introduced an offense built around three point shooting, driving, and passing out for open jumpers.

Obviously the offense relies on shooting well, but in general, Duke has made it work pretty well and the more it's run the better it should get. That doesn't imply a straight learning curve with no setbacks, but it's pretty effective.

A lot of basketball is emotional and psychological, and from that perspective, Wake may have an advantage. This is a team which is beginning to understand its potential and which is eager for success. If it's not Duke, it'll be someone else and soon.

Because as Pitino said, Wake Forest is ready. Let's hope Duke is too.