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ACC Preview #3 - Wake Forest

Can Danny Manning get the Demon Deacons back on track?

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Wake Forest v Duke
DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 13: Head coach Danny Manning of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons reacts during their game against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 13, 2018 in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Remember when Wake Forest fans - there’s no other word for this - rebelled against Jeff Bzdelik and his stewardship of Wake Forest basketball?

The coach was emotionally distant, didn’t recruit well and had a boring offensive style (hmmm...that might ring some bells in Raleigh).

The fans simply refused to tolerate it and ultimately helped to push him out with Danny Manning replacing him.

His first two seasons were a predictable struggle but Wake won 19 games in his third season and made the NCAA’s First Four.

John Collins was the star of that team and left for the NBA. Wake expected to struggle some after his departure but the wheels pretty much fell off last year with the Deacs starting 0-3, losing to Georgia Southern, Liberty and Drake.

Wake also lost to Houston before entering ACC play at 7-5. The Demon Deacons won just four more games.

It was an ugly and depressing season and the fans, so happy to have run Bzdelik off, are now faced with seasons of 13-19, 11-19, 19-14 and 11-20 and Manning’s Wake overall record of 54-72.

Bzdelik by contrast was 51-76 at Wake Forest (and by the way, he’s been a huge asset to the Rockets and is primarily responsible for the the team’s defensive improvement).

Manning hasn’t finished higher than 10th in the conference.

So is there any reason for optimism?

Well some at least.

First, no one doubts Manning’s understanding of the game. He’s a smart basketball mind. Second, he’s a very fine big man coach and that really helped Collins and last year’s center, Doral Moore. And third, he may have gotten rid of some of his problems.

Moore, Mitchell Wilbekin, Bryant Crawford, Sam Japhet-Mathias, Donovan Mitchell and Keyshawn Woods all departed. Only Wilbekin was a senior.

Crawford always struck us as talented but lacking confidence. Moore became a solid big man who is now with the Grizzlies although we’re not sure he’s full-time.

And Woods is now an Ohio State Buckeye.

We wondered frequently if he was part of Wake’s problems. That was based on some of his comments, some of Manning’s comments, and just watching the Deacons play.

So our main question about Wake is this: is it a case of addition by subtraction?

Wilbekin always struck us as honorable and Moore, like Collins, really benefited from Manning’s tutelage and is at least a marginal NBA prospect. Japhet-Mathias was dismissed which can’t be good. We’re not sure where Mitchell ended up.

We were never sold on the other two and a fresh start might help the Deacs.

Wake returns Brandon Childress, son of He Who Must Not Be Named, Melo Eggleston, Chaundee Brown, Olivier Sarr and Sunday Okeke,

That’s not world class but it has potential. Childress is a reasonably tough point guard and Eggleston and Brown are rangy and athletic guys who could develop. And we hear that Sarrs has put on a ton of muscle over the summer. Okeke came as a walk-on but he’s 6-8 and much more athletic than your normal walk-on. Who knows what he can do? We didn't really see much of him although that could have been because he’s just not that good rather than because he’s a work in progress.

Manning also brought in a couple of potentially useful grad student transfers in Ikenna Smart and Torry Johnson, who is a guard from Northern Arizona.

Like Okeke, Smart is Nigerian. He comes from Buffalo which means he was well coached by Nate Oates.

Andrien White is a 6-3 guard who transferred from Charlotte and will sit out this season. He’ll help in practice; the other two will give experience and stability to a young squad.

By necessity, Wake brings in a big freshman class with 6-8 Isaiah Mucius, 6-5 Sharone Wright Jr., 6-8 Jaylen Hoard, 6-6 Michael Wynn, 6-3 Jamie Lewis and 6-5 Blake Buchanan.

Mucius is thin but promising, a four-star Top 100 player as a senior. Wright is the son of former Clemson star big man Sharone Wright who’s also a Top 100 player.

Lewis is seen the same level but sat out his senior year at Nevada’s Findlay Prep so it’s hard to tell where he is now. Maybe he’ll surprise.

The most intriguing prospect though is Hoard.

Wake has had some great players of the years, but as freshmen, Tim Duncan, Muggsy Bogues, Rod Griffith and Josh Howard were not highly regarded.

Hoard, whose father Antwon played at Murray State and then professionaly in France, is a Top 25 prospect, which Wake doesn't get very often. Skip Prosser had a few and there was Rodney Rogers back in the day but really it isn’t that common for Wake Forest. Their tradition is more about scrappy guys who will themselves into far better players than anyone expected.

Hoard and Sarr both played on French National teams and obviously know each other well.

If you imagine a starting lineup of Childress, Eggleston, Brown, Sarr and Hoard, that’s young but potentially not bad. Childress is a solid point guard at a minimum and both Brown and Eggleston have some talent. Sarrs showed flashes last year and of course Hoard is very highly regarded.

Despite big losses, Wake has a chance to improve.

A lot of it will depend on maturity and team unity and we don’t think last year’s team had either in big measure.

And that probably comes back to Manning in the end.

He recruited his players and he’s responsible for how they play.

The irony is that while Manning was an amazing talent who could have dominated the Kansas offense, he was instead a superb team player. His senior year at Kansas was a tour de force as he did anything he could to lift his team to the national championship. His teammates weren’t hugely talented but it wasn’t like Manning just demanded the ball and spent his time shooting. That guy did everything and certainly sacrificed a lot to make other guys live up to their potential.

It must have really eaten him alive last season to see Wake’s lack of cohesion, the apathy, the inability to unite. He knows how to fix that. It’s Danny Manning for God’s sake.

Our question is this: can this man who was such an inspirational leader as a player find a way to lead his team as a coach?

Manning is quiet and introverted and we wonder if it’s difficult for him to control his team from the bench. Fairly early at Wake, remember, he had a running conflict with Devin Thomas, suspended Rondale Watson and Madison Jones and kicked Cornelius Hudson off the team. And of course just last season he booted Japhet-Mathias.

We’re not sure he handled Woods well and had questions all along about Crawford’s battle between arrogance and insecurity. And while it’s not quite the same thing, this summer his assistant Jamill Jones was arrested after punching a man in New York who later died.

Ultimately it all comes back to Manning. Is he getting through to his players? Is he able to transmit his world-class knowledge of basketball?

Our hunch is that Wake fans would accept some more struggle this season albeit reluctantly, but only if Wake Forest shows some serious heart. And if the Demon Deacons don’t, then what was the point of running Bzdelik off?

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