Deacons aim for more than just a bid

After being knocked out in an NCAA Tournament play-in game last season, Danny Manning and Wake Forest plan to be an annual postseason threat

Head coach Danny Manning and the Demon Deacons expect to build on their NCAA bid from last season. (Eamon Queeney / North State Journal)

CHARLOTTE — Officially, the Wake Forest basketball team made it to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010 last season.

It just didn’t feel like it to the players that accomplished the goal and ended the drought.

“Even though we made it to the tournament,” senior guard Mitchell Wilbekin said, “we really didn’t make it to the tournament.”

Because the Deacons were one of the last four at-large teams selected to the field of 68, they were relegated to playing in the so-called First Four in Dayton instead of being seeded directly into the main bracket.

Their 95-88 loss to Kansas State in that game meant that they were already eliminated from the festivities two days before the madness actually kicked in. It was a disappointment that has only fueled Wake’s motivation to get back.

Even then, Wilbekin said that the experience of being part of the tournament environment was more valuable to his team than the NCAA tournament watches each player received to commemorate his participation.

“When we get to that point, it’s lose or go home so you’ve got to take that lose or go home method and fight for everything,” Wilbekin said. “If there’s a loose ball on the floor, you’ve got to go down and get it. If there’s a rebound, you’re getting that rebound and if it’s your shot and you’re wide open, you better be sure you’re ready and prepared to make the shot.”

Those are things Wilbekin said he and his teammates didn’t always do in a game that saw Kansas State shoot a blistering 66 percent from the floor.

“I don’t feel like we approached that game in the correct way,” he said. “I think we were too excited.”

Now that the Deacons know what to expect, coach Danny Manning said the goal is to be more than just “happy to be there” next time around.

“We tell the guys that’s the basement of what we want to attain and where we want to be,” Manning said of the Deacons’ short 2017 NCAA tournament stay. “We don’t want to just get to the NCAA tournament every year. We want to say we’re an NCAA tournament team, now let’s do something a little bit more than that, something a little more special than that.”

Before Wake can think about going deeper into the tournament, however, it must first do enough during the regular season to get back to the tournament.

That’s not necessarily a lock considering that the Deacons lost their best player, John Collins, to the NBA draft. Collins, a 6-foot-10 sophomore, now plays for the Atlanta Hawks after being selected as the 19th overall pick.

While Collins’ loss was expected after averaging 19.2 points and 9.8 rebounds and being named the ACC’s Most Improved Player, Wake was surprised this summer when senior forward Dinos Mitoglou signed a contract to play professionally in his home country of Greece.

His departure leaves the Deacons dangerously short both in stature and low post experience. But it’s a problem Manning thinks his team can overcome because of an abundance of talented backcourt players.

It’s a group led by Bryant Crawford, a 6-3 junior who put up All-ACC numbers last season (16.2 points, 5.1 assists per game) without gaining All-ACC recognition. Joining him are junior Keyshawn Woods, the team’s third-leading scorer at 12.5 ppg a year ago, along with steady veteran Wilbekin and sophomore Brandon Childress.

The backcourt rotation was strengthened even further by the addition of Florida prep Player of the Year Chaundee Brown, Wake’s highest-ranked recruit since 2007.

There are so many potential contributors at the two guard positions that Manning is going to have to find creative ways to get as many of them onto the court as possible.

“It depends on matchups. It depends on foul trouble. It depends on injuries,” the fourth-year coach said. “All I know is that at some point in time I’m going to have my four guards out there. What big guy is out there with them? Whoever’s playing the best.”

Whether that turns out to be 7-foot junior Doral Moore, stocky sophomore Sam Japhet-Mathias or four-star freshman Olivier Sarr, Manning’s players are confident he’ll make the decision that gives his team the best chance of winning.

“Danny Manning wanted to change the culture of our team. He wanted to bring in good guys, wanted to bring in people that love being in the gym and love to get better,” said Woods. “He did a great job with bringing in the right type of guys that we needed in order to win games.”