CHARLOTTE — One of the last things Ron Wellman did before retiring as Wake Forest’s athletic director last spring was announce the return of basketball coach Danny Manning for the 2019-20 season.
It was a move likely based more on economics than performance since the Deacons have posted losing records in four of Manning’s five seasons — including 11-20 last year — and he’s still under contract through 2025 at a price tag of $18 million.
Then again, with six of the top seven scorers returning and a highly regarded recruiting class already on campus, the elements might be in place for Manning to finally turn things around and earn more than just one more year under new AD John Currie.
Whether this actually is a put up or shut up for the former Kansas star and No. 1 overall NBA draft pick, he’s approaching it as if it is.
“There’s always a sense of urgency,” Manning said last month at the ACC’s Operation Basketball media event in Charlotte. “It doesn’t matter what year. I played professional basketball for 15 years. You can lose your job anytime somebody came in and took it. That’s just what it is.
“This year is no different than my first year, my second year or last year. My mindset doesn’t change. I’ve been very fortunate to be in the situation I’m in, but I understand what it is. There are a lot of things you can control, and you can’t worry about the things you can’t control.”
One thing Manning can’t control is the perception others have of his program. The Deacons were picked to finish last in the ACC’s preseason media poll. But they do have the power to change that perception with their play on the court.
And Manning said he feels good about their chances.
Manning actually has several reasons to feel good these days, not the least of which is that he’s walking around with much less pain after undergoing knee replacement surgery this offseason.
Most of all, though, he’s looking forward to entering a new season with some continuity to his roster. That’s a luxury he hasn’t had during his watch, with 17 underclassmen having left with eligibility remaining by either transfer, early entry into the NBA Draft or disciplinary action.
Even without one-and-done forward Jaylen Hoard, who signed a two-way deal with the Portland Trailblazers as an undrafted free agent, the Deacons return players that recorded nearly 80 percent of the team’s minutes a year ago.
It’s a group, led by senior Brandon Childress, who is just as motivated — if not more — to finally get Wake headed in the right direction in his final season of eligibility.
“I want to go back and not just get to the tournament, but make a run and win the whole thing,” said Childress, the son of Wake Hall of Famer and current assistant coach Randolph Childress. “I’m trying to leave Wake Forest better than I found it.
“My first year, we made it to the First Four. I have a love and appreciation for this year. I want to make a run and make a statement that Wake Forest is back. That was my goal when I signed that letter of intent.”
While Childress led the team in both scoring and assists last season, he is hardly the only scoring option in a backcourt loaded with experienced players.
“It’s a guard-heavy team, and coach is going to give us the keys to the car,” he said. “We’ve got to drive it.”
Among those joining Childress in the rotation of what figures to be a three-guard alignment is junior Chaundee Brown, who has successfully rehabbed from offseason knee surgery and is poised to improve on a season in which he started 30 of 31 games and posted career-high totals of 11.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 29.1 minutes per game.
Redshirt senior Andrien White is a 6-foot-5 transfer who scored more than 1,000 points in three seasons at Charlotte before sitting out last season under NCAA rules, and Torry Johnson is a reliable graduate student capable of playing both guard positions. Sophomores Sharone Wright Jr. and Michael Wynn are also ready to take the next step in their careers after up-and-down rookie campaigns.
While the Deacons don’t have a true low-post presence — especially since freshman 6-foot-9, 260-pound freshman Tariq Ingraham was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon — they do have some size.
Seven-foot junior Olivier Sarr and slender 6-8 sophomore Isaiah Mucius are the closest things Wake has to experienced big men and are going to have to contribute inside defensively and especially on the glass.
Other possibilities include 6-8 freshman Ishmael Massoud — a fluid, polished wing who has the potential to be the most accurate shooter on the team with the ability to play both inside and out — and 6-9 freshman Ody Oguama, who figures to be more of a work in progress.