As crazy as it seems, the Wake Forest 2015-16 basketball season is just under two weeks away and this year there is plenty to look forward to. With the return of ACC veterans Codi Miller-McIntire and Devin Thomas, a strong rising sophomore core headlined by Dinos Mitoglou, and a top 25 recruiting class ready to take the court for the first time, many expect this year’s team to be the best we’ve seen in the last half-decade. However, if the Deacs can put together a solid winning season in the second year of the Manning era, it won’t be because of a lack of competitiveness from a schedule standpoint. Wake Forest’s schedule (Both non-conference and ACC) is loaded with top programs from across the country and a 20-win season this year would be a heck of an accomplishment. Let’s take an in-depth look at the 2015-2016 schedule and the must win-games Wake has coming up this season.
The way I see opponents on Wake Forest’s schedule is always in five categories: The Cupcakes, The Trap Games, The 50-50’s, The Uphill Battles, and the Quad Rollers. Let me briefly explain each category before we head into some analysis.
The Cupcakes- These are the games you expect Wake Forest to win 10 times out of 10. They are the UNC Asheville matchups in November or Citadel games on a Tuesday night. Or in other words: Jeff Bzdelik’s idea of a good time in 2013.
The Trap Games- In the past five years, games where Wake comes into the matchup favored by 5-10 points are few and far between. They do exist, however, and there are a few of them on the schedule this season. These are matchups where the Deacs should win, but nothing is truly guaranteed. Think Iona last season.
The 50-50’s- Now, this is really the category that decides the season. If you don’t win a majority of the games where the matchup is a toss-up, you won’t be finding yourself playing in late March. That’s just the reality. In the last few years Wake has really struggled closing out games like this, most notably against Clemson and FSU on the road last season.
The Uphill Battles- Uphill Battles are certainly winnable, but not without a great team performance for a whole 40 minutes. Games against lower top 25 opponents at home or top 40 Kenpom teams in the ACC on the road would fall into this category.
The Quad Rollers- These are the "court-stormers," the "2 full minutes of highlights on Sportscenter," and the "How the hell did Cavenaugh just do that?" type games if we pull out a victory. But it ain’t going to be easy. Last season Wake fell apart in a couple of these games, particularly Duke on the road and UVA at home. If you win, it’s phenomenal. If you don’t, life moves on as expected.
So here’s how I breakdown the 2015-2016 season into these 5 categories:
-Like I said above, these are the games you are expected to win 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. There really is no excuse not to go 2-0 against these two opponents, the first one being ranked in the bottom 10% of Kenpom and having less wins last year than Darius Leonard 3PA per game (Not really), and the second one going a firm 6-12 in the SOCON. Of course, the disaster situation is overlooking one of them and having a Delaware State game like last year, but this team will be much more composed and experienced than the one that struggled early in 2014-15. I’ll comfortably call this section 2-0 and call it a day.
The Trap Games
-A few of these games will let us know early on what type of season we’re in for. The Deacs should be favored in each one of them, but that doesn’t mean the matchups won’t come down to the wire. Bucknell was the Patriot League regular season champion last year and played Wake fairly close at the Joel in 2014-15. The Wake v. Richmond matchup has been one of the most entertaining games on the schedule the last few seasons, most notably with last year ending on a Devin Thomas tip in as time expired on the road. Although UR lost its leading scorer in Kendall Anthony to graduation, the Spiders should still be an NIT-level team this year and near the top of the A10.
While Rutgers is probably the weakest team in this section, an ACC-Big 10 Challenge matchup on the road is never an easy task and Eddie Jordan did bring in a top 50 recruiting class for 2015 as well. As for the other three teams, Coastal Carolina was the Big South NCAA tournament representative and BC and Virginia Tech both earned W’s over WF last year. Although Wake will be the favorite in all six of these games, one has to expect a little slippage along the way. Bucknell on the road and Richmond at home (Both without Codi Miller-McIntire due to injury) are the games I feel the Deacs are most vulnerable here, but 5-1 seems like a reasonable projection of this category.
Apart from Maui, Arkansas, and Xavier every one of these games are big time ACC matchups that Wake simply has to win a majority of to be a .500 team this year. The first game of the Maui Tournament will be the Deacs’ first real challenge of the season as they go up against Yogi Ferrell and the #15 Indiana Hoosiers. Indiana was top 20 in the nation in scoring last year and will have an absolute field day on the offensive side of the ball if Wake’s defense is anything like it was in 2014-15. Add that to the fact that WF’s leading scorer Codi Miller-McIntire (Despite his desires stated at media day) will likely be out for the tournament makes me think this game could be a serious mismatch. In terms of the second matchup, either St. Johns or Vanderbilt awaits, the latter being a far superior team and less likely to have lost in the first round. I think St. Johns is certainly a winnable game, but if the Deacs still can’t get into an offensive rhythm without CMM, Chaminade will in all likelihood be the 3rd matchup and a definite victory. Whether WF wins Game #2 or not I see their record in Maui settling at 1-2 given the field and their All-ACC Honorable Mention Point Guard sidelined.
As for the other matchups, Arkansas is a far less scary team than the one that routed the Deacs in Fayetteville last November with its top two scorers and rebounders (Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls) off to the NBA. Xavier finished at #22 in the polls last year and are coming off a Sweet 16 finish in the NCAA tournament, but lost star PG Dee Davis and 2nd team All-Big East C Matt Stainbrook. The other 7 games are all against ACC teams that should finish middle of the pack or below in the ACC. VT has the lowest Kenpom of the lot, but Buzz Williams is doing wonders in the rebuilding process and the Hokies have three new 4* recruits enrolled and ready to play serious minutes this season. Wake has been able to get results against NC State at home in recent years, but the Wolfpack have an All-ACC caliber guard in Cat Barber back for his junior season and a strong frontcourt with Abdul-Malik Abu and Beejay Anya. As for the other 5 opponents in this section, the Deacs went 2-4 in games against them last year that featured two OT games and all but one being close until the final minute. Wake simply can’t go .500 in these and expect to be back in the postseason. But with CMM likely back in stride and the freshman really settling into their roles on the team at this point of the season, I think the Deacs go 7-5 in this section, highlighted by a refreshing first W over Syracuse in the ACC.
The Uphill Battles
If you ever find yourself pondering about the last five seasons, it is these games that often come to mind as the ones most painful in the Bzdelik era. Wake has had a horrifying trend of coming out flat in games like this and the result being virtually sealed midway through the first half. While Danny Manning and all of Deacon nation patiently await the news of landing its own #1 recruit, Johnny Jones and LSU already have one with 2015 HS standout Ben Simmons. The Tigers will once again be a top team in the SEC and I would expect a somewhat similar result to last year’s Arkansas game in this road trip to Baton Rouge.
Louisville, Miami, and NC State likely aren’t competing for an ACC championship anytime soon, but all will be incredibly difficult to oust on the road, particularly an experienced Miami who some analysts are projecting to finish as high as 2 in the ACC. Notre Dame at the Joel isn’t nearly as tough a matchup as it would’ve been last year, but Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste make up a core of a top 20 team that still will be heavily favored heading into Winston-Salem in late February. I like to think Wake can pull out two wins here, but until the squad shows they can go into tough environments on the road and beat top 50 RPI teams in the conference I’m going to remain skeptical.
The Quad Rollers
Finally, we get to the primetime matchups of the season in this final section. I, like many others, don’t see Duke as nearly as talented a team this year or remotely ready to defend their NCAA title crown, but the Blue Devils will likely be in the top 10 throughout the season and win all of the games against bottom-half ACC teams that they should. Where Duke will struggle is in their youth in big games against UNC, UVA, and Miami, where the disparity in experience between the two teams could show drastically. Of course, a Marcus Paige-led UNC team is back and being labeled by many as the team to beat in the nation and a road-trip to Chapel Hill could end in a similar manner as last year’s home defeat to the Heels.
As I mentioned before, Notre Dame at home is a difficult task as it is, but a win in South Bend where the Irish lost only two games last season will be a lot to ask of this year’s team. Lastly, UVA shouldn’t be as dominant this year in the conference as they were in 2014-15 due to some key departures, but with Perrantes, Gill, and Brogdon all back and a year more experienced, the 1/25 matchup will be as tough as it gets. I list this section at 1-4 simply because Wake usually finds a way to stay in games that it shouldn’t (UVA on the road last year and Duke at home in 2013-2014) and could possibly find themselves hot from the floor on the right night, but a losing record in these five games is nothing else other than expected.
So what was the W-L final count at the end of the day? If you add in the projections from each of the 5 sections the Deacs find themselves at 16-14 heading into the ACC tournament, which is certainly an improvement and a step in the right direction. Put together a few wins in the ACC tournament and an 18-15 team with one of the hardest SOS in the country should get some NIT looks, which is exactly what many fans were hoping for in the second year of the Danny Manning era. With the majority of the guys who will contribute on this team still young (Devin and CMM will be the only upperclassmen recording significant minutes) and a solid 2016 class coming in, an NIT berth in 2015-16 is perfectly acceptable in the natural progression of WF’s rise back to the top of the ACC standings. And hey, if you think the team will surpass my expectations and pick up a few extra wins here and there, then you can find me on the quad on Selection Sunday with some toilet paper in your hand to tell me "I told you so." I’ll be more than happy to hear it. Thanks for reading and, as always, Go Deacs!