NCAA.com’s Mike Lopresti is on the road, taking in seven games among nine teams throughout the heart of ACC country.
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- It’s not easy, being Wake Forest, with so many ACC predators about.
Look at the map. The school is surrounded by Tobacco Road bluebloods the way Hawaii is surrounded by blue water. Duke, North Carolina and NC State are all there to fight the Demon Deacons for every headline, every second of airtime, and if need be, every recruit. Together those three own 12 national championship trophies. Wake Forest owns one trip to the Final Four -- 53 years ago. There has been one NCAA tournament win in nine seasons.
But something seems astir here. Start with the new coach. The 6-10 guy. Name should ring a bell.You remember Danny Manning. He carried Kansas like it was a backpack to the 1988 national title with a magical March, then played 15 seasons in the NBA. But this new gig sounds like the challenge of a lifetime.
"I don’t look at it as a challenge," he said on Tuesday, hours before Wake Forest would lead NC State by 24 but win by four, 88-84. "For me, a challenge is when I was playing professionally, when I blew out my knee three times. Those were challenges; especially the first time I did it when it was considered career-threatening. Where I’m at right now is we’re on a new era of Wake Forest basketball, and we’re building that era each and every day."
(Fun Fact No 1: At 4,867 students, Wake Forest is the smallest school in the Power 5 conferences. Doesn’t Ohio State have fraternities bigger than that?)
Manning was head coach at Tulsa for two seasons before moving to Wake Forest. With Tuesday’s win, he is at 49 career victories. Or 952 fewer than Mike Krzyzewski. Jim Boeheim, Rick Pitino and Roy Williams are out there, too. How’s a new man supposed to compete against so many Hall of Fame busts?
"I want to kick everybody’s butt I play against. I don’t care who it is," he said. "That’s just my mindset and that’s how we want to go about doing things. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, it doesn’t matter where we’re playing, it doesn’t matter the injury situation. When we step out on the court, we want to win. Period. End of discussion."
(Fun Fact No. 2: Do you know Wake Forest University is actually 110 miles west of Wake Forest, N.C.? They moved the whole campus -- lock, stock and original name -- to Winston-Salem in 1956.)
Look at the man in the Wake Forest gold jacket. The athletic director. He doesn’t have to try to act neutral anymore, since the college hoops world no longer hangs on every Ron Wellman thought. This time last February, he was chair of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball committee and had a bracket to fill."I find myself watching games differently this year," said Wellman, who was on the committee five seasons. "The last five years I was watching to get a scouting report. This year I’m watching for pleasure. I can turn it off. I don’t have to know if Mike Smith goes left, of if they play a zone. I’m looking forward to going to the ACC tournament for the first time in six years.
"I’m also going to miss being so involved. It’s an experience that is unmatchable."
He mentioned he can be a fan again. It’s certainly an interesting season to be one at Wake Forest.
(Fun Fact No. 3. Do you know which school is tied with Kentucky for having the most former players in the NBA All-Star Game? Yep, Wake Forest. Tim Duncan, Chris Paul and Jeff Teague are all old Demon Deacons.)
Now look at season box scores. They tell us 11-12 Wake Forest led Louisville, Duke, Syracuse, Clemson and Florida State in the second half. Lost to them all.
"The one thing that shows is we’re moving in the right direction," Manning said earlier Tuesday. "We just have to finish and close out games. That’s something we’ve talked about on a regular basis."
That evening, his team led 74-51 with 9:47 left, then was outscored 33-14.The mass exhales of relief after the Demon Deacons found a way to hold on were nearly as loud as the motorcycle the mascot had ridden onto the court before the game. It was the second victory in a row they have preserved at the end, after all those near-misses. Even if it was wobbly.
"We won. Never apologize for winning," Manning said. "Yes, there are some things we need to tighten up and get better at.
"But we’ve created a little bit of momentum for ourselves at this point in the season."
(Fun Fact No. 4. The lineup includes junior Devin Thomas, the only player in the ACC averaging a double-double. Also freshman Mitchell Wilbekin, whose brother Scottie was SEC player of the year last season for Florida. And Codi Miller-McIntyre, who put in 23 points Tuesday and is averaging nearly 15 points, five rebounds and four assists. Admit it, you don’t know much about them. Few do.)
"When you look at their numbers, that’s something hopefully people will start to notice," Manning said. "Before that happens we have to be more successful, we have to win more games."They’re getting better at that. A team with three freshmen in the starting lineup can only learn how to close out games by doing it.
"We’re a work in progress," Thomas said.
Manning is one of two Final Four most outstanding players coaching Division I teams, along with Duke’s Bobby Hurley at Buffalo. Maybe that feat, and his NBA career, get him listened to by players and recruits.
"He has immediate credibility," Wellman said. "But that credibility is only good for so long, and then he has to perform. The players quickly realized he’s a good coach, too."
(Fun fact No. 5. Manning and assistants Randolph Childress and Steve Woodberry have more than 40 years of professional basketball among them, both in the NBA and overseas.)
Not that they take part in practice, heaven forbid.
"We don’t get up and down anymore. Our days have passed us," Manning said. "If we go out there on the court now and do anything, our main objective is walking away healthy."
He laughed. It was another day to move forward at Wake Forest. The steps are often small, even for a coach with size 16 shoes.