It’s never too early to look at what’s to come. Over the next few weeks, we will give you a peek at what is ahead for teams in the Power 5 conferences and some other teams expected to be players on the national scene. Next up: Wake Forest Demon Deacons.
In college hoops, success is always measured against its context.
In the long-run history of Wake Forest men's basketball, a 19-14 season that ends with a First Four loss to a deeply flawed fellow bubble team would rarely be considered a banner campaign. Relative to recent Demon Deacons teams -- relative to the demoralizing nadir of Jeff Bzdelik's tenure in Winston-Salem -- 2016-17 was an undeniable story of success.
Since 2010, when Skip Prosser's successor, Dino Guadio, was fired after back-to-back tournament appearances (the last of which came after Wake, once the No. 1 team in the country, collapsed into a No. 9 seed down the stretch), Wake Forest hadn't been back to the NCAA tournament at all. Bzdelik was (and remains) well-respected within coaching circles but had been only modestly successful as a head coach at Colorado when then-athletic director Ron Wellman chose him to replace Gaudio. The next four seasons, from 2011 to 2014, were an unmitigated, fan base-alienating disaster. Bzdelik's teams finished with an average KenPom.com adjusted efficiency rank of 181st nationally; they never won more than six ACC games.
In 2014, former Kansas assistant Danny Manning boldly stepped into this mildly depressing breach. At first, progress was opaque. Wake won just seven ACC contests combined in 2014-15 and 2015-16 -- though, to be fair, those teams' adjusted efficiency ranks (120 and 118, respectively) represented the high-water mark of Bzdelik's tenure. Still, by last fall, Manning was inching toward that "OK, now let's see some progress" stage of any rebuilding job. He and his players delivered. The 2016-17 Demon Deacons finished with a top-40 efficiency ranking, a return to the NCAA tournament and a breakout star worthy of first-round NBA draft projections.
In some ways, 19-14 does Wake's 2016-17 work a disservice: Manning's team, habitually a bucket or two away from big wins throughout the season, was even more competitive than its record indicates. Plus, when you go through a half-decade like Wake Forest fans just went through, simply competing night in and night out is disproportionately fulfilling. It's all relative.
So, what now?
Another warp-speed year-over-year leap like the one Wake enjoyed in the 2016 offseason looks pretty much impossible.
That would be true even if the aforementioned breakout star, center John Collins, hadn't announced his intention to hire an agent and remain in the 2017 NBA draft. Collins was a monster as a sophomore. He averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds per game, accounted for 29.4 percent of Wake's offensive possessions (and took 29 percent of its shots), shot 62.4 percent from the field and posted 25.7 percent (defensive) and 16.4 percent (offensive) rebounding rates, the latter of which was eighth-highest in the nation.
Wake Forest finished with the ACC's third-best offense on a per-possession basis. Collins was (literally and figuratively) the biggest reason why. In the end, he was so good that it would have been foolish for him not to take his sudden NBA mock draft preeminence seriously. His stock soared.
Of course, Collins wasn't the only reason Wake's offense excelled. Guards Keshawn Woods, Mitchell Wilbekin and (especially) Bryant Crawford were very good on the perimeter, while Dinos Mitoglou added rebounding and bulky interior play alongside his gifted frontcourt partner. Freshman guard Brandon Childress showed real flashes of breakout potential as his minutes increased late in the year. Manning continues to recruit well, and top-100 class of 2017 shooting guard Chaundree Brown could break into this crowded backcourt (and could be a handy piece in a rotation that might feature more small ball-ish configurations moving forward).
Still, there is no ready replacement for Collins, because that's just not how these things work. But there is an interesting offensive group here -- and one that has plenty of space to improve on the defensive end.
Indeed, that might be the biggest hope for a surprising improvement in Manning's fourth year. Wake Forest finished with the nation's 176th-ranked defense, per adjusted efficiency, and allowed 1.12 points per trip to ACC opponents. Collins' work protecting the rim was often undone by a perimeter that allowed penetration much too easily, that didn't guard the point of attack well and that broke down in uptempo, high-scoring games. Its final outing of the season -- in which Wake scored 88 points in 72 possessions, and nonetheless lost by seven -- was fitting.
If Manning can shore things up on that end of the floor and a few more close games go the Demon Deacons' way, Wake Forest may wind up one of 2017-18's unforseen surprises, the team that weathered its star's departure and came out ahead all the same. If not, it will struggle to maintain 2016-17's success -- relatively speaking, anyway.