Year 1, Take 2: Steve Forbes reboots with Deacons

The Wake Forest coach is looking for a fresh start after a tumultuous first year in Winston-Salem

Steve Forbes' first season at Wake Forest was derailed by COVID-19, but the Demon Deacons' coach has reshaped his roster and focused on team-building heading into Wednesday's season-opening game. (Fred Vuich / AP Photo)

Officially, Steve Forbes is entering his second season as Wake Forest’s basketball coach. But if you ask him, he’ll tell you that he’s still an ACC rookie.

Given the obstacles he and his Deacons were forced to overcome because of COVID-19, its related protocols and a nearly complete roster turnover, the 2020-21 campaign was something Forbes would “just like to forget.”

“This is really my first year, the way I look at it,” he said. “I don’t mean that in any disrespectful way to any players that we had, but we needed a change.”

Forbes got the Wake job on April 30, only a week after previous coach Danny Manning was fired. Because he inherited a program with only four returning lettermen, he was forced to scramble to assemble a team.

The process was made even more difficult by the NCAA’s pandemic-mandated prohibition on in-person recruiting.

Even after putting together a patchwork squad filled with transfers and freshmen, Forbes wasn’t able to meet with his players until late July. Then just two games into the season, both wins, COVID hit.

It took a month for the Deacons to get back onto the court, a setback from which they never recovered. They finished the season with a 6-16 record, winning only three games against ACC opponents.

“Because of the situation with COVID, we couldn’t become a team,” Forbes said. “Obviously Gonzaga, Baylor and those guys, they had great players. But they had a lot of guys back. Chemistry wasn’t a big issue for them. It was a huge issue for us because we had a new coach, we had new players.

“We couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t eat together, couldn’t be together, couldn’t even be in the locker room together. So it was very disjointed. There was no manual for that.”

Forbes said he doesn’t spend a lot of time looking back at last season or feeling regret for how it unfolded.

He’s been much too busy going through a similar process putting together this year’s team, which opens its season Wednesday at home against William & Mary.

Thanks to transfers and other forms of attrition, the former East Tennessee State coach once again started out with just four returning veterans. The difference this year is he and his Deacons had a full offseason to get to know each other, build relationships and install Forbes’ system the way he wants to play it.

“We have a lot of hard-nosed guys on the team that have really bought in, and we’re really connected as a unit,” said Daivien Williamson, a junior guard who came over to Wake from ETSU with Forbes last season.

“We’ve been together since June, and not only have we been going hard on the court, we’ve also been really big on developing chemistry off the court. We’re finally going to see Forbes’ real system in the ACC at a high level.”

While Williamson is part of a veteran nucleus that also includes wing Isaiah Mucius, point guard Carter Whitt — who joined the team at midseason after graduating from high school last December — and big man Tariq Ingraham — who has played only three games in two seasons because of injuries and COVID — the bulk of the Deacons’ roster consists of nine newcomers.

In fact, three of their top four scorers in last week’s exhibition win against Winston-Salem State were transfers. Indiana State forward Jake LaRavia (16 points), Oklahoma guard Alondes Williams (16 points) and Ole Miss big man Khadim Sy (12 points) were recent transfers.

Their performance in that 88-56 win was a good start to Forbes’ second first season. But as the charismatic coach warns, the process of changing the culture of Wake’s program is still a work in progress.

“Culture is a great buzzword for everybody to use, I get it. But you have to have identity before you can have culture. You have to know who you are,” Forbes said. “The one thing that we definitely learned from last year was what our identity is. For me it’s more about knowing who you are every day, and we know that. And then it was recruiting.

“Go out and get an ACC roster. It was a very busy spring and summer. We only brought four guys back. We have nine new players. But (now) we have a great balance of older guys and younger guys. This is the way I did it at East Tennessee State. You’ve got to stay old, and you’ve got to stay athletic. We were neither last year, and I believe that we are this year.”