Deacons, derailed by COVID, try to get season back on track

Coach Steve Forbes’ first season at Wake Forest has resumed after nearly a month of delays due to the coronavirus

Guard Isaiah Mucius and the Demon Deacons have had a stop‑and-go start to the season, but coach Steve Forbes has guided Wake Forest to a 3-1 start in his first year in Winston-Salem. (Curtis Compton / Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

When Steve Forbes said that his Wake Forest Demon Deacons looked like a different team after Sunday’s loss at Georgia Tech than the one that started the 2020-21 basketball season, it wasn’t just an exercise in coachspeak.

They actually are a different team.

Two players that started the season for the Deacons back in November are no longer on the active roster while two others have been added, including one that was still in high school when Wake played its first two games as part of the Mako Medical Classic.

It’s a disjointed situation, exacerbated by a month-and-a-half coronavirus-related layoff, that has made the job of building a program all the more difficult in Forbes’ first season in Winston-Salem.

And things don’t promise to get easier anytime soon with No. 22 Virginia and No. 21 Duke coming up on the schedule this week.

“We are changing,” Forbes said. “It’s just hard to change and do all these things on the run, especially when you’ve got Virginia and Duke staring at you and then Louisville coming at the house. But like I tell the players, nobody’s going to feel sorry for us. So we have to figure it out.”

The Deacons are hardly unique in the fact that their season has been disrupted by COVID-19. No one, however, has been more affected by the ongoing pandemic than Forbes and his team.

Not only did they lose virtually their entire nonconference schedule because of the virus, which also forced the postponement of their first two ACC games, but they also lost two key contributors in the process.

Redshirt freshman Tariq Ingraham, a 6-foot-10 center who scored a team-leading 19 points in Wake’s season-opening win against Delaware State, has been ruled out for the season while he recovers from COVID-19 complications.

Graduate transfer Ian DuBose, meanwhile, will be sidelined indefinitely for medical reasons. The 6-foot-4 guard started both the Delaware State game and a subsequent win against Longwood two days later and was expected to be a settling influence for a young team with a new coach.

“We had a good vibe,” Forbes said of the season’s opening weekend. “We were moving in the right direction, plus we had Ian and Tariq, too. I felt good. It was a hard-fought game against Longwood, but we found a way to win. I thought we had really good film and practice (that) Sunday. I was looking to play again real fast just to get them back out there.”

But that didn’t happen.

A COVID outbreak among the team caused Wake to pause basketball activities on Nov. 29.

It took nearly a month after that before Forbes had enough players available to get back on the court. And even then, it wasn’t with a full roster.

It took until the day after Christmas for the Deacons to hold a full-scale practice that allowed them to begin preparing for a return to game action.

Not only did the team have to work at shaking off the rust that comes from more than a month of inactivity, but it also had to figure out how to incorporate two new pieces into the puzzle.

One of the new faces, 6-foot‑9 sophomore Ody Oguama, has at least been with the team for a season. He missed the first two games because of contact tracing.

The other, freshman guard Carter Whitt, is a recent high school graduate who passed up his final season at Raleigh’s Leesville Road High School to enroll for the spring semester and begin playing right away.

“Getting Carter has been great,” Forbes said of the top-rated point guard prospect in North Carolina for 2020. “He should be playing in some tournament for high school right now, but he’s playing in the ACC. I think he’s done a great job, and I think he’ll get better and better each game.”

Whitt has shown promise in his first two games.

He contributed 11 points and four assists in a hastily scheduled win against Division II Catawba in his college debut on New Year’s Eve before having a tougher time with just four points in his first ACC game against Georgia Tech.

Whitt wasn’t the only player to struggle in the 70-54 loss to the Yellow Jackets. The Deacons (3-1, 0-1) committed 18 turnovers and shot just 3 of 20 from 3-point range in by far their worst performance of the season.

“There’s no possible way we could look the same today as we did then,” Forbes said, referring to the earlier Delaware State and Longwood wins. “That was five months of practice, plus two games with no stoppage. And now we’ve got to totally start over.”

While the execution was lacking, junior forward Isaiah Mucius did see at least one positive from his team’s loss in Atlanta.

“We didn’t get the outcome we wanted, but I think the guys played hard,” Mucius said after scoring a team-leading 21 points. “After being out for a month-and-a-half, they fought really hard. There’s a lot of blocks to build off that as we go forward more into the season.”