Entering Coach Danny Manning’s third year in Winston-Salem, expectations surrounding Wake Forest basketball were certainly tempered. Although there was hope surrounding the team due to its young core, pundits and coaches around the conference did not anticipate much of a revival following a disappointing 2015-16 campaign that resulted in a 2-16 Atlantic Coast Conference record, projecting Wake to finish in 13th place (out of 15 teams) in preseason polls. However, at approximately the halfway point of conference play, it seems as if the experts have underestimated the Demon Deacons, as the team has made significant strides, already exceeding preseason expectations.
Following a blistering 9-3 start in non-conference play, the Deacs have navigated their way through a very difficult ACC schedule, and as a result the team has already doubled their conference win total from last year.
Although the season has included its share of heartbreak, namely a disappointing loss to arch-rival Duke in front of a sold out crowd at the Joel, the season has been a step forward for the team in nearly every way, and has included highlights such as the program’s first road win against North Carolina State since Chris Paul was in Winston, as well as a blowout win against a strong Miami team and a season sweep of Boston College.
The maturation of a young team under Coach Manning’s tutelage has absolutely been the most exciting and encouraging part of the season for Wake fans. Namely, the emergence of sophomore big man John Collins has elevated the Deacs to new levels. Collins, who only played 14 minutes per game as a freshman due to the presence of Devin Thomas, has emerged as the best Center in the Conference, and is seemingly on his way to be the first Wake Forest player named to the All-ACC 1st team since Chris Paul. Collins has been the offensive centerpiece for the team, averaging 17.5 points on the season, and has scored 20 or more points in the team’s past five games.
Additionally, Collins is averaging nearly 10 rebounds a game, good for fifth in the conference. Furthermore, Bryant Crawford and Doral Moore (both sophomores) have continued to see their game mature. Crawford has improved his shooting and has facilitated the offense, averaging 6 assists per game which trails only NC State star Dennis Smith Jr. for the conference lead. On the other hand, Moore’s shot-blocking prowess has turned him into a defensive terror for opposing players.
Due to the success that the team has seen so far, a return to the NCAA tournament remains very possible for the Demon Deacons. While they would almost definitely have to take care of business at home against pesky teams such as Georgia Tech, NC State and Pittsburgh, while also winning a game or two in the ACC tournament, the team has proven that they are more than capable of doing so. Multiple “bracketologists” across the country, including ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, currently have us in the field of 68, meaning that the school’s first postseason birth since 2010 is certainly in reach.
If the team can continue to play the way they have, Demon Deacon fans might remember the 2016-17 season as the one that Mother So Dear began its journey back to its proper place among the college basketball elite.