With work still to be done, no tourney talk yet for Wake

The Demon Deacons have been the ACC’s pleasant surprise, led by second-year coach Steve Forbes and newcomer Alondes Williams

Wake Forest guard Alondes Williams, pictured going in for a dunk against Charlotte in December, has emerged as a surprise candidate for ACC Player of the Year. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

Joe Lunardi, the most prominent NCAA Tournament bracket guesser on the internet, had Wake Forest as one of the last four teams into the field of 68 in his projection last week.

It’s a position that he upgraded solidly to the right side of the bubble after Saturday’s road win at Virginia.

At 14-4 overall, 4-3 in the ACC with four wins against Quad 1 or 2 opponents and no bad losses, there is no denying that coach Steve Forbes’ team is trending in the right direction in hopes of breaking a five-year postseason drought.

But it’s a subject the usually talkative Forbes would just as soon avoid.

At least for the time being.

“I don’t really talk about that, especially right now. I don’t even look at it,” he said when asked Monday about his team’s NCAA chances. “I understand the excitement behind it for fans, but for me personally and the team, I think you have those conversations more as you get into February, close to March.”

Regardless of when the conversation takes place, Wake can enhance its position in it significantly over the next few days with a road test at Georgia Tech on Wednesday before returning home Saturday for a rivalry game against North Carolina.

The matchup with the Tar Heels promises to be especially telling. Not only does it have the potential to eventually become a Quad 1 opportunity — UNC is currently ranked just outside the top 30 in the NCAA’s NET rankings — but it will also give the Deacons another chance to shine on the big stage after last week’s disappointing performance against Duke.

Like most coaches, Forbes has never been one to look past the next game on his team’s schedule. But because of a quirk that had Wake’s next two opponents playing one another in Chapel Hill on Saturday, he’s been able to get a head start on scouting the Tar Heels while at the same time preparing for Tech.

“I don’t ever look ahead, but obviously you’re watching,” Forbes said. “You can see what’s going on.

“I’ve been impressed with Carolina. We talk about rankings and seriously, they’re not ranked? They’re good. They’re really good.”

In many respects, the Tar Heels and Deacons are cut from a similar cloth.

Both have formed their success this season around a group of talented, veteran transfers that have meshed seamlessly with their returning cores. Both are among the highest-scoring teams in the ACC, led by conference Player of the Year frontrunners in UNC’s Armando Bacot and Wake’s Alondes Williams.

But while the Tar Heels were expected to be among the league’s best teams under first-year coach Hubert Davis, the surprising Deacons have come out of nowhere to become one of the ACC’s few feel-good stories this season.

The key to their success has been their ability to overcome adversity and win close games, including two in overtime.

Both those qualities were on display Saturday when Wake battled back from a seven-point second-half deficit for a 63-55 win that broke a 12-year losing streak in Charlottesville.

“The players have to trust each other, and the more they go through those things the more they do,” said Forbes of his team’s formula for success. “As a staff, we’ve got to give them confidence to make those plays.

“On Saturday, we talk a lot about a next-play mentality. You’ve got to have a short memory and you’ve got to keep playing. Nobody was down when it was 47-40. Nobody was unconfident that we weren’t going to win. We just had to make the right plays and we did, got on a roll and won the game.”

As good as the Deacons have been thus far, their chances of staying on the right side of the NCAA bubble could get even better from here on out with the addition of transfer Damari Monsanto.

The 6-foot-6 guard was recruited to East Tennessee State by Forbes and was the Southern Conference Rookie of the Year last season. The skilled perimeter shooter was thought to be out for the year after suffering a torn Achilles tendon over the summer.

But after a quicker-than-expected recovery, he is scheduled to make his Wake debut at Tech on Wednesday.

“We’ll ease him in and hopefully he can help the team,” Forbes said, adding that expectations for his contribution should be tempered because of his lengthy absence. “He’s been practicing, so it’s not like he’s just all of a sudden going to get in there. We’re looking forward to him joining the team and helping us become a better team.”