Wake Forest needs to take final step to make NCAA Tournament

The Deacons have jumped 100 spots in the rankings but still need a signature win

Parker Friedrichsen and Wake Forest are feeling the pressure of needing a Quad I win to bolster the Demon Deacons’ NCAA Tournament resume. Wake was unable to get that win Monday, losing 77-69 at Duke. (Ben McKeown / AP Photo)

Wake Forest has come so far, but there is one big step still left to take.

In December, when the NCAA released its first set of NET ratings — the metric the selection committee uses to evaluate tournament hopefuls — the Deacons were on the outside, looking in.

Actually, Wake had a long way to go to even get to “looking in” status. The Deacs were 4-3 at the time, and two of the three losses were Quad III games, at Georgia and in overtime against LSU. (Top opponents get a Quad I rating in NET, while the lowest quality opponents are Quad IV.) That ranked Wake Forest a dismal No. 133 in NET. It appeared that the Demon Deacons’ NCAA tournament drought, dating back to 2017, would be extended another year.

Wake probably should have made the Big Dance in 2021-22, when the Deacs turned in a 25-10 record in coach Steve Forbes’ first season. The team was docked for a poor nonconference schedule and a perceived down year for the ACC, which kept them from racking up enough Quad I wins to impress the committee. Twenty of the Deacs’ games were against Quad III and IV teams that season, and Wake finished just 1-4 against Quad I.

Lesson learned: Forbes upgraded the schedule last year, but Wake wasn’t able to win enough games against tougher opposition, going 1-9 against Quad I and, with a 19-14 overall mark, wasn’t a serious bubble contender when tournament time came around.

A few weeks into this season, it appeared that Forbes would be back at the drawing board this offseason, trying to find the right mix of impressive but winnable games to give the Deacons a chance to go deep into March.

Now, however, as March is two weeks away, it seems possible that Forbes has already found that mix. While an NCAA-friendly schedule has been a tough equation to balance, Forbes has done a much better job solving the chemistry problems that come with the transfer portal. He brought in the ACC Player of the Year, Alondes Williams, in his first class two years ago. Last year, another transfer, Tyree Appleby, won the AP’s ACC Player of the Year. This season, Forbes’ top scorer (Hunter Sallis) and rebounder (Efton Reid), both came via the portal, and the veteran newcomers apparently needed a slightly longer runway before things started to jell on and off the court.

Since the first set of NET rankings, Wake has steadily moved up, jumping 100 spots in two months to position itself firmly on the bubble. A nine-game winning streak starting in late November helped right the Deacs’ ship. Meanwhile, Georgia and LSU have helped Wake look good, winning often enough to improve those early-season Wake losses to Quad II, which is far less damaging to a bubble team than a Quad III loss.

A three-game stretch over the last week had Wake dreaming of March. Wake posted an impressive 29-point win over Syracuse then won on the road by 29 at Georgia Tech. Next, Wake topped NC State in a battle of bubble hopefuls.

All three of those wins count as Quad III’s however, which is part of the problem still facing the Deacons. Wake is a perfect 11-0 against Quad III and IV, but beating up on teams you should beat isn’t a ticket to dance.

This week, Wake found itself in the low 30s in the NET rankings, and ESPN has the Deacs on the “first four out” list. To make the last step and land in the tournament, Wake Forest needs a high-profile win or two.

It hasn’t happened so far. Wake is currently 0-4 against Quad I, coming close on occasion. Wake lost to Utah by seven in November. The Deacs lost at UNC, then fell at Pitt by five. And, on this Monday, Wake again came within single digits of a Quad I win, losing to Duke at Cameron Indoor.

The game was tied seven seconds before halftime, but Wake couldn’t hit enough shots or stop Duke often enough to pull out the win.

“For us to win an elite level road game like that you can’t give up 48 points in the second half,” Forbes said.

He also pointed out that Wake missed 12 of 23 layup attempts.

“I mean, we got to finish those, right?” he said. “We missed a lot of shots at the rim. … You’ve got to play through contact. You can’t go into looking to get fouled. That’s not a good number, you know, especially as many times as we got there.”

The good news for Wake is that there are still plenty of opportunities for the Deacs’ number to come up. Wake plays at Virginia on Saturday then has a rematch against Duke at home a week later. Early March holds a trip to Virginia Tech and a home finale against Clemson. Each of those games is currently a Quad I contest, and a home rematch with Pitt is a Quad II.

Wake is in position to make a run. They have a resume and ample opportunity to improve it.

Now it’s time to take that one extra step.