College Sports

NC State and Wake Forest pass in night, headed different directions

NC State’s Keatts: ‘Markell Johnson was special tonight’

NC State coach Kevin Keatts talks about the play of Markell Johnson and his teammates after the Wolfpack's victory over the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019.
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NC State coach Kevin Keatts talks about the play of Markell Johnson and his teammates after the Wolfpack's victory over the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019.

Watching Markell Johnson slash through Wake Forest on Sunday, it seemed apparent the only way N.C. State could have lost to Wake Forest back in January was because Johnson missed that game. And even then, hard to fathom.

N.C. State’s 94-74 home win Sunday was like watching two trains pass going different directions, except these were two programs heading opposite ways, and not merely when it comes to playing Tuesday and Wednesday at the ACC tournament.

Only two years ago, N.C. State was in disarray and Wake Forest was headed to the NCAA tournament. That seems a lot longer than two years ago now. On Sunday, N.C. State continued to take care of its late-season business, avoiding costly missteps, polishing a resume that’s already largely a finished product. Wake Forest missed out on yet another chance to win consecutive road games in the ACC, something the Demon Deacons haven’t done since 2009.

Kevin Keatts is building something at N.C. State. The Wolfpack has an identity, even if it doesn’t always have the talent or the depth to pull it off. But he’s all but assured of a second straight NCAA tournament appearance in his two seasons at the school, and even if this year hasn’t always gone as planned or hoped, there’s still reason for optimism.

NC State basketball player T.J.Warren, the 2013-14 ACC Player of the Year, was honored and his #24 jersey was lifted to the rafters before the Wolfpack's game against Wake Forest at PNC Arena Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019.

There’s none of that left at Wake Forest, where Manning was building something, and under different circumstances, it might have worked. But it all fell apart, and the wreckage keeps bouncing. There’s some ACC talent – Chaundee Brown and Jaylen Hoard could play for anyone – but it’s young and there’s not enough of it and Manning hasn’t been able to get enough out of it.

What does Wake Forest do now? The Demon Deacons are headed for another bottom-drawer ACC finish, and the optimism that swelled early in Manning’s regime exited like the air from a slashed tire when John Collins got too good too fast, when Bryant Crawford and Dinos Mitoglou and Doral Moore all left early, when the program degenerated into too much more of the same.

Manning has a reported $18 million buyout, and it’s a decision athletic director Ron Wellman is going to have to face with one NCAA tournament appearance – barring a miracle in Charlotte – in five years and a 23-63 ACC record, with four likely losses still to go. In terms of efficiency, the Deacons would be the seventh-place team in the Southern Conference and Big South.

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Wake Forest head coach Danny Manning talks with his team, including from left, Brandon Childress (0), Torry Johnson (4), Isaiah Mucius (1) and Sharone Wright Jr. (2) during the second half of N.C. State’s 94-74 victory over Wake Forest at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

Far from the days of tie-die and Tim Duncan and Chris Paul, this program has been on unsteady footing since Skip Prosser passed away. In some ways, Wake Forest has never recovered from that loss. Dino Gaudio was able to hold things together until Wellman found it imperative to make a change, Jeff Bzdelik was the wrong coach in the wrong job at the wrong time, and Manning had the Kansas pedigree and some success at Tulsa but only two years of it – and may not have made enough friends on campus or among the boosters to weather the tough times.

There’s not enough talent and not enough hope and not enough reason to believe.

It’s a different story at N.C. State, where there’s more talent and way more hope and reason to believe.

In this first-do-no-harm portion of the Wolfpack’s schedule, avoiding a repeat of the slip-up in Winston-Salem was imperative. This was easier than the overtime win over Boston College, but just as mandatory. Saturday’s game at Florida State is a chance to improve the Wolfpack’s resume, but a loss won’t hurt it; the closing games against Georgia Tech and at Boston College are as must-win as this one was. Johnson took care of things Sunday, with 19 of his 25 points in the first half to assure the Deacons never got much of a sniff.

Keatts has won big games and while the roster remains very much in flux and a work in progress, he has shown the ability to put that roster together on the fly and get it to play as a team and, at times, overachieve. There haven’t been the huge upsets this year that the Wolfpack was able to pull off last year, but there haven’t been horrible losses, either – other than the one at Wake Forest. It’ll be enough to get the Wolfpack comfortably into the NCAA tournament and continue the forward momentum from there, something Wake Forest can only aspire to in its wildest dreams at this point.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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