Nothing about Wake Forest basketball has been the same since July 26, 2007, the day that Skip Prosser died in his office from a massive heart attack.
We can remember hearing the news like it was yesterday. It was a devastating blow to his loved ones and Wake Forest fans obviously, but it was also tough for all ACC fans. You didn’t have to love every thing about Prosser to realize that he was a fine basketball coach and a very good man.
Since his death, Wake Forest has hired his assistant Dino Gaudio, Jeff Bzdelik and Danny Manning.
Gaudio inherited solid talent from Prosser but never seemed fully in control of it. Additionally, he won exactly one post-season game by one or two points and lost every other one badly.
Bzdelik inspired a fan rebellion at Wake Forest the likes of which we’d never seen before. He finally gave up and fled, ala Herb Sendek who left NC State also thoroughly disliked. He went on to become a very highly regarded assistant coach with the Houston Rockets.
We don't get it.
We thought, based on everything Larry Brown and Bill Self, his two most noticeable mentors, said that he would be a tremendous coach.
Well not so far.
Manning has unquestionably struggled to turn Wake Forest around, a struggle compounded by transfers and early departures. His Wake Forest record after about 4 1⁄2 seasons is 61-78.
By comparison, Brad Brownell has had one losing season at Clemson, Miami’s Jim Larranaga averaged 23 wins in his first five seasons and Tony Bennett averaged 21.2 but his win totals increased each of his first five seasons with 30 in his fifth.
We’ve wondered at times if Manning struggles partly because he is somewhat introverted and partly because he was, by any measure, a great player. And not too many great players go on to become great coaches. This might be similar to, say, Wynton Marsalis trying to teach an average musician how to play a trumpet.
How does he explain his talent? How do you tell someone that you understand something intuitively that they may never understand?
On one level it must just kill Manning to see his guys do stupid things and that’s not a knock on Wake’s players. Every young player does stupid things periodically. Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett occasionally make dumb fouls. DeMarcus Cousins had trouble controlling his temper as a younger player.
It’s a universal truth. It’s just that guys like Mike Krzyzewski, Brad Brownell and Jim Boeheim learned to be great coaches by observing great players and Manning...well, he started at the top, didn’t he? He’s had to learn to do the opposite and it can’t be easy.
Look how many great players couldn’t coach: Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Bob Cousy; the jury is still out on St. John’s Chris Mullen and Georgetown’s Pat Ewing.
And, we suppose, Wake’s Danny Manning.
Things might be easier if he had a naturally mature roster but a lot of guys left early either to play professionally or for other reasons.
Look at last year’s roster which certainly struggled: Keyshawn Woods is finishing up at Ohio State.
Doral Moore and Bryant Crawford, both gone after their junior years. Melo Eggleston, gone after his freshman year. Sam Japhet-Mathias, dismissed. Rich Washington, gone after his sophomore year.
From last year’s team Wake Forest returns Brandon Childress, Chaundee Brown, Sunday Okeke, Olivier Smart - and that’s about it in terms of consequential talent.
We have good will towards Danny Manning. We’d like to see him do well just as we’d like to see Wake Forest do well.
We’d like to see every ACC team do reasonably well, even UNC to an extent. It’s not healthy for the ACC to see the Tar Heels like they were under Matt Doherty. It was fun, admittedly, but it hurt the conference.
We’d like to see everyone be good, a notch below Duke to be sure, but still good.
Lately, and we don’t like it, it’s been hard to argue that Wake Forest has been good.
This team has lost to St. Joseph’s PA, Houston Baptist, a mediocre Richmond and Gardner-freakin’-Webb.
Most recently it allowed an offensively challenged bunch of Yellow Jackets to put up 92 points.
On the other hand, Wake did beat an always tough Davidson and gave Tennessee an early challenge which was impressive, although undercut when UT dominated the Deacs later in the game.
Still, for a time, Wake looked really good against Tennessee.
So are we saying Wake can’t possibly beat Duke?
It really takes just one player to take his game to a higher level where other guys can follow. Duke fans who saw Brandon Childress’ father, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, absolutely dominate Duke and punk UNC understand this all too well.
And while Wake is clearly struggling, there is an institutional memory of greatness and fans expect (and will encourage) their team to compete. And if someone, say Jaylen Hoard, gets hot, who knows? Stranger things have happened.
And when an upset is building, a kind of consensus builds among fans. When John Daly won, fans helped pull him to the finish line. It happened with the US hockey team when it beat the USSR in 1980 and Villanova’s win over Georgetown in 1985 and many times with Duke basketball, particularly on the road in the ACC.
We’ve seen Virginia Tech do it, NC State too many times to remember, Clemson does it at Clemson reasonably often and of course Wake Forest has upset Duke many times, notably in 1992 when the great Christian Laettner couldn't get a good shot off after a full-court pass with time running out.
We’re not sure Wake has seen a team like Duke this year. Tre Jones is putting on killer ball pressure while RJ Barrett has the ability to penetrate nearly any defense and the Blue Devils have the college equivalent of the Incredible Hulk in Zion Williamson.
Even so, as much fun as it’s been to see the talent tsunami come through Durham, most of the recent Duke teams have seen road upsets early in the ACC season. Odds are that won’t happen in Winston-Salem Tuesday night, but ruling them out is simply a way to court them. Duke is very good about this but to quote an irritated Dean Smith from about 20 years ago: “freshmen!”
You just never know for sure with freshmen.
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