Danny Manning has never been to Cameron Indoor Stadium, not as a player, coach or even a fan. As surprising as that is, it’s maybe the least surprising aspect of his first season at Wake Forest.
The big surprise is how much progress Manning has made cleaning up the mess left behind by Jeff Bzdelik. Manning will make his first visit to Duke on Wednesday with the 13-16 Deacons. At 5-11 in the ACC, that doesn’t seem like much of a step up from Bzdelik, who went 1-15, 4-12, 6-12 and 6-12 before he was fired last year.
The positive momentum under Manning is palpable, though, especially after Sunday’s 69-66 senior night win against Pittsburgh that saw Wake Forest come back from seven points down in the final five-plus minutes.
Given how often Wake Forest struggled to close out games this season – the Deacons went 4-5 in two-possession and overtime games before Sunday, including near-upsets at Virginia and Syracuse, with 11 of their 16 ACC games decided by single digits – it may be a sign that Manning’s very young roster is finally starting to figure things out.
“We’ve been in some situations where I think we should have more wins than we have,” Manning said. “I think we’ve put ourselves in some situations to win late. We just haven’t been able to seal the deal and close it up.”
Manning was a slightly unconventional choice to bring Wake Forest back to life after Bzdelik’s disastrous reign that saw the Deacons essentially secede from the Big Four and become more or less irrelevant nationally, bar the occasional ACC upset in Joel Coliseum.
Manning went 38-29 in only two years at Tulsa, raising questions about his experience. Although he’s a North Carolina native, he played at Kansas and worked as an assistant for Bill Self there, instead of somewhere in the ACC. And while Manning is one of college basketball’s all-time greats, he isn’t exactly a household name among today’s teenage players.
After watching a season of Manning at Wake Forest, all those concerns seem trifling now.
Perhaps most commendable was his ability to find useful role players among the picked-over leftovers of last spring’s recruits, bringing point guard Mitchell Wilbekin with him from Tulsa, adding Campbell graduate transfer Darius Leonard, going overseas for gangly 3-point specialist Konstantinos Mitoglou – the 6-foot-10 “Greek Deac” – and bringing in Cornelius Hudson as late as September.
“They’ve logged a lot of minutes and we’ve played them in some pretty unique and hostile environments, and this will be one of the better environments we’ve played in,” Manning said. “You gotta go out there and just play. That’s the beauty of our game.”
The three late-arriving freshmen have combined for 24.1 points per game to go with two key holdovers from the previous regime, Devin Thomas and Cody Miller-McIntyre, Wake Forest’s leading scorers.
Manning has shown an eye for the overlooked; now the onus is on him to land some elite ACC-level talent. So far, so good: His first full recruiting class is ranked 32nd by ESPN, with three four-star players.
One area where Manning has yet to catch up with Bzdelik: on the road in the ACC. Bzdelik amassed an incredible 2-32 record in ACC road games, but the Deacons are 0-7 under Manning. They have two chances left, at Duke and at Boston College on Saturday.
As was the case in the entire Bzdelik Era, Wake Forest already has been condemned to the opening day of the ACC tournament for the sixth straight season and ninth in the past 10. This time, at least, the Deacons take some positive momentum into Greensboro next week.
“We’ve got to go out and string together a bunch of wins to get into the tournament we want to get into,” Manning said. “That’s kind of where we are right now.”
On paper, it’s a familiar place for Wake Forest. On the court, Manning’s first season offers plenty of reason for optimism.
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947