Wake Forest Enters ACC Play Firmly Ahead of Schedule

Posted by Matthew Auerbach on January 3rd, 2016

As the calendar flipped to 2016, even the most pessimistic Wake Forest fan would have to admit that second-year head coach Danny Manning is a full year ahead of schedule in his rebuild of the once proud Tobacco Road program. After winning nine of their 12 contests in this year’s non-conference slate, the Demon Deacons enter league play at Louisville tonight with a realistic, if not likely, opportunity to make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010.

The senior Thomas, has led an otherwise young Demon Deacons' squad to a surprisingly strong start

The senior Thomas has led an otherwise young Demon Deacons’ squad to a surprisingly strong start

Patience was the buzzword in Winston-Salem after Manning, the 1988 National Player of the Year at Kansas, took over the program at the conclusion of the 2013-14 season. After winning just 13 games a season ago, Manning welcomed a highly regarded recruiting class headlined by Bryant Crawford, but it was widely assumed that this season’s youthful roster would act as a bridge to a brighter future. Someone, however, forgot to relay those plans to Devin Thomas. The senior forward, who has started all but one game in his Wake Forest career, has led the way in building a resume which includes four KenPom top 100 wins, highlighted by victories over Indiana and UCLA, at the Maui Invitational.

Thomas, one of only 12 power conference players averaging a double-double, has been a dominant force in leading the Deacs in scoring and rebounding. And while classmate Codi Miller-Mcintyre was on the mend for eight games rehabilitating a broken foot suffered in the offseason, Manning’s precocious rookies and improved second-year players picked up the slack. The freshman Crawford, whose 13.9 PPG trails only that of Thomas (16.6 PPG), leads the team in assists (4.8 APG) and three-point shooting (42.3%). The 6’3” guard has also played his best with the lights on, averaging nearly 16 points per outing in four games against Indiana, Vanderbilt, Xavier and LSU, while making several big plays down the stretch in the victory over the Hoosiers. John Collins, a freshman who carries a rugged 6’10”, 230-pound frame that belies his age, was the least heralded of Manning’s rookies, but he has proven remarkably productive in his first 12 games. The freshman is shooting 63 percent from the floor and averaging 9/5 in just 15 minutes per night.

The sophomore quartet of Konstantinos Mitoglou, Cornelius Hudson, Mitchell Wilbekin and Greg McClinton have all notably improved under Manning, as each player has seen a moderate uptick in his production this season. The best of the bunch is Mitoglou, a Greek import who meshes a traditional European face-up game with a willingness to utilize his size to bang on the inside. Hudson, who was suspended for the team’s first five games, returned to score 16 points in his season debut against UCLA, and followed that up by hitting the game-winner in a one-point victory at Rutgers. Wilbekin, the brother of former Florida star Scottie Wilbekin (the 2014 SEC Player of the Year), leads the team in minutes played and serves as Manning’s most dependable ball-handler, having turned the ball over only nine times in 393 minutes of action.

To transfer its early season success to conference play, however, Wake Forest will have to learn to value the basketball. The Demon Deacons are averaging over 20 turnovers per outing (273rd nationally), and to make matters worse, the Deacs do little to offset their carelessness on the defensive end, forcing a paltry 15.6 turnovers per game (318th nationally). Few teams are good enough to overcome a four-possession per game disadvantage in a league as strong as the ACC. This characteristic will need to be reversed, and in short order, as Louisville, still licking its wounds from last week’s loss to Kentucky, will amp up its full-court pressure to test the youthful Deacons’ mettle.

Late-game fortitude is a quality that these Deacs have so far shown in spades. None of Wake’s nine wins have come by a margin greater than 10 points, and seven of those have been decided by six points or fewer. While the optimistic crowd will take solace in the way it is learning to finish close games, the analytical faction defines this trend as unsustainable good fortune. In fact, despite holding that 9-3 record against a good schedule, KenPom rates Wake Forest 92nd in the nation and first in its “luck” metric.

Regardless of how the Deacs have gotten here, Manning has to feel pretty good about where his team stands at as it embarks another grueling ACC slate. With more road wins already (five) than in any of the last seven seasons, the trajectory for this program is clearly on the rise. But when that youthful exuberance is mixed with the all-league play of Thomas, along with a full return to health from Miller-Mcintyre, is it too greedy to wonder if the future is indeed now for the Demon Deacons? The pairing of a trip to Louisville and a home date with Duke on Wednesday to open ACC play is as good a place as any to answer that question.

Matthew Auerbach (70 Posts)

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