College Basketball Preview: Wake Forest looks to win ‘the right games’ this year

Coach Steve Forbes and the Demon Deacons are still smarting over their NCAA snub

Guard Daivien Williamson is the only returning starter on an overhauled Wake Forest roster that will face a tougher nonconference schedule in 2022-23 after being snubbed by the NCAA Tournament committee last season. (John Minchillo / AP Photo)

Steve Forbes still hasn’t gotten over it.

“If you had told me last year three things: that Alondes Williams is going to be Player of the Year, I’d have been like, ‘Yeah, right.’ If I had said it, you’d have said I’m not credible. Jake LaRavia’s going to be a first round pick. C’mon. And we’re not even going to get into the tournament? You’re kidding me.”

Indeed, with the ACC — who would send two teams to the Final Four — considered a down league, Wake’s success in the league was discounted, and the Demon Deacons were left out of the NCAA field.

Forbes, preparing for his third season as head coach of the Deacs, is still steamed over the snub.

“You’re going to win 13 league games, but you’re not getting into the NCAA Tournament?” he said. “That might have been the biggest fallacy of all, right? There’s no way! But we didn’t.”

Forbes spent much of the offseason trying to make sure the league didn’t get discounted by the selection committee again.

“I said this at the meetings. I’m new. I’m the outlier, coming into the league, but we can’t rest on our laurels. We can’t rest on the fact that we’re the ACC, we’re the best league, we have the most national championships, we had the most players drafted in the history of the NBA Draft,” he said. “You’ve still got to go out and do it. And when somebody talks down about our league, you’ve got to come back. We can’t just sit there and take it, in my opinion. I’m just not made that way. I said that in the spring.”

Then Forbes set out to make sure, regardless of whether his ACC colleagues took his advice about talking up the league, his team wouldn’t be left out in the cold again. Forbes upgraded Wake Forest’s nonconference schedule. The Deacs will play two SEC teams (Georgia and LSU), two Big Ten schools (Wisconsin and Rutgers) and play in a holiday tournament that also includes Georgetown. Just one of those games against power opponents will be in Winston-Salem.

“We did upgrade our nonconference schedule,” he said. “Strategically, last year, we didn’t have a tough nonconference schedule because we had nine new players coming out of COVID. But visiting in the spring with the experts, there’s a lot of emphasis on November. You can agree with that or not. For me, personally, I think it’s more important to win on the road in the ACC than win in a casino or a ballroom in November.”

The upgraded schedule should produce the opportunity for more Quad 1 and Quad 2 wins, the high-profile victories that impress the NCAA, since Forbes knows he can’t count on ACC wins to do that for his team.

“We didn’t get a Quad win for beating North Carolina,” Forbes said. “We didn’t get a Quad win for winning at Virginia. Seriously? C’mon now. Winning at Florida State. Sweeping Florida State.”

Of course, to get “Quad wins,” Forbes needs his Deacs to win some of those big nonconference games. And much like last year, he’s got another team that’s in transition with plenty of new faces. In addition to Williams, who led the ACC in scoring and assists, and LaRavia, Wake lost Dallas Walton, Isaiah Mucius, Khadim Sy and Carter Whitt from last year’s 25-win team. That’s five of the top six scorers on the team, the top five shot blockers, the three steal leaders, the top two in assists and top five rebounders, not to mention two of their top three outside shooters.

To replace them, Forbes has brought in four transfers and three freshmen.

Just like last year when Williams, a transfer, blossomed into the league’s best player, Wake’s incoming transfer class holds the key to the Deacs’ season in their hands.

Point guard Tyrone Appleby led Florida in assists and 3-pointers last season and in assists and steals the year before. He’ll be running the show on the floor for the Deacs. Six-foot-10 Andrew Carr led Delaware in 3-point shooting and blocked shots while hitting over 54% from the field. Combination guard Jao Ituka was the MAAC freshman of the year while averaging 15.1 points at Marist and hitting 41% from 3. Davion Bradford is a 7-footer from Kansas State who will join sophomore Matthew Marsh to give Wake a paint presence.

They’ll team with Daivien Williamson, the lone returning starter from last season. Back for his super senior fifth season, Williamson hit 39.5% of his 3s to lead last year’s team and was third in scoring at 11.8 points per game.

The Deacs have already put one impressive win on the board, pulling away from Ohio State in the second half of a “secret scrimmage” last week.

Of course, in typical Wake Forest fashion, that game won’t count when the NCAA selection committee meets.

“The reason why we didn’t make it last year, according to the experts, was we didn’t win the right games,” Forbes said. “We have to win the right games to take the next step because, obviously, the next step is to go to the tournament. These guys know that, and so that’s the plan.”