Forbes era at Wake Forest off to winning start

The Deacons produced their largest margin of victory ever at Joel Coliseum with a 111-51 rout of Delaware State in coach Steve Forbes' debut

Redshirt freshman Tariq Ingraham, who led Wake Forest with 19 points in its season opener, will miss the rest of the year while recovering from COVID-19 (Wake Forest athletics photo)

WINSTON-SALEM — Steve Forbes has admittedly never met a meal he didn’t like, a claim that can be affirmed by one look at his ample girth.

That having been said, the new Wake Forest basketball coach’s Thanksgiving turkey is going to taste just a little bit better after the way his team played in his Deacon debut Wednesday.

Twelve different players scored while combining to shoot 54.5% from the floor in a 111-51 drubbing of Delaware State in the opening round of the Mako Medical Wake Forest Classic.

But it wasn’t just the margin of victory, which was the biggest in Joel Coliseum history, that had Forbes so upbeat.

“I thought we were on brand for most of the day, which means we played to our identity,” said Forbes, who came to Wake from East Tennessee State after Danny Manning’s dismissal last March. “I wasn’t really looking at the score, I was looking more if we played hard, played together, played smart, sharing the ball.

“We were gritty, grimy, tough on defense. We had our moments where we weren’t great, but for the game (Delaware State) shot 26%. Execution was OK, but you’ve got to expect that (in an opening game).”

Forbes anticipated some early growing pains thanks to a roster comprised of more transfers in their first year in the program (five) than returning scholarship lettermen (four).

That’s why he arranged a schedule that will give his patchwork roster a chance to gain a little confidence while it learns to play together.

Of the five nonconference games currently on the slate before Wake gets into the meat of its ACC season, four are against opponents that had losing records in 2019-20. And the fifth, Presybterian, was barely over .500.

Lesser competition, however, hasn’t always been a guarantee for success under the watch of former coach Manning and his predecessor Jeff Bzdelik, who combined to produce only two winning seasons over the past decade.

And for a while Wednesday, it appeared as though this new group of Deacons would also have trouble putting away the Hornets of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Wake trailed 22-19 midway through the first half. But with Tennessee transfer Jalen Johnson heating up from the perimeter and redshirt freshman big man Tariq Ingraham establishing himself in the paint, the Deacons finally took control before breaking the game open with a 28-0 run late in the period.

“Remember, it’s the first game of the season, so there were some first-game jitters involved, and we were definitely a victim of those,” said Johnson, who made four of his six 3-pointers on the way to a career-high 16 points. “Once those first few minutes, you get into a rhythm, just getting in the flow of the game and that kind of eases your nerves.”

As expected, Forbes went deep into his bench and substituted frequently throughout the game.

Some of that was by design as he searched for lineup combinations that worked well together while getting a feel for how each of his new players handled game situations. But his hand was also forced by early foul trouble to holdovers Isaiah Mucius and Ismael Massoud.

“It was kind of like a hockey game with those guys running in and out of there,” Forbes said. “We had some mismatched lineups because of those two guys being in foul trouble. We had some people playing out of position, some different combinations we really haven’t played. When we had guys in there that moved the ball and cut, that’s when we were pretty effective on offense.”

One of the most surprising of those players was Ingraham.

Given extended playing time because starter Ody Oguama was held out because of contract tracing protocol, the 6-foot-9, 255-pound center — who missed all last season because of a torn Achilles tendon — took advantage of his opportunity by putting up what Forbes described as “Shaq numbers.”

He went 7 of 7 from the floor and 5 of 5 from the free-throw line for a team-leading 19 points to go along with five rebounds, all on the offensive end.

But Ingraham’s performance wasn’t the only positive to come from the strange circumstances brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to Johnson, it may also have played a role in helping to build chemistry among a group of players literally thrown together during a disjointed offseason.

“As a basketball team, we’re more into ourselves and not just out here interacting with everybody else, so I think that’s helped us jell more,” the graduate guard said. “When we first got here they made us do a self-quarantine, but we would still come outside and talk to each other. That’s kind of how it started.”

That togetherness showed on the court Wednesday.

Of the 14 Deacons that played, 12 scored — with UNLV transfer Jonah Antonio (12 points), true freshman Quadry Adams (11) and Virginia Tech transfer Isaiah Wilkins (10) joining Ingraham and Johnson in double figures.

Ten players recorded at least one steal while nine had at least one assist. Five players combined to make 14 3-pointers — a long-range proficiency that was a trademark of Forbes’ teams at ETSU.

“I know the kids were excited,” Forbes said of the delayed season finally getting started. “They’re tired of playing against each other. They’re tired of hearing me yell at them. Just for us to band together and play together, that’s a special feeling.

“You’ve got to give them a lot of credit. The guys have done an unbelievable job of taking care of their business, being very coachable and having really good chemistry.”